Elizabeth Holtzman was a Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.
Now that it has received the House Intelligence Committee report, the Judiciary Committee is expected to draft at least two articles — one dealing with Trump’s abuse of power involving Ukraine and a second dealing with Trump’s obstruction of the House inquiry by directing witnesses not to testify or provide documents. It might draft a third article charging bribery: dangling a White House meeting or release of military aid to Ukrainian officials in return for investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Many have called for including non-Ukraine-related abuses in the charges against Trump, and there are good reasons for doing so. Focusing only on Ukraine suggests that Trump’s impeachable offenses are limited to this one matter. That approach might make it too easy for the Senate and the public to say, in effect, “Bad as it is, it doesn’t warrant removing the president from office.” The narrow focus minimizes the fact that Trump’s abuses are staggering and continuous, and include lining his pockets by ignoring the emoluments clause and flouting the rule of law in general.
The Mueller report identified 10 ways that Trump committed obstruction of justice. These include directing then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as a way of impeding the Russia investigation, and hinting at pardons to deter witnesses from cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
Should the House ignore these misdeeds when similar acts were grounds for articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon? Nixon was charged with trying to block the Watergate investigations by firing the Watergate special prosecutor and offering pardons to the burglars, among other things. Without a compelling rationale, Trump should not be treated more leniently than Nixon for similar offenses.
One problem with impeachment on the basis of the Mueller report is that most of the key witnesses in the Mueller obstruction case have never been questioned in public. Instead, the evidence is largely contained in a 448-page report that most Americans have not read, plus secret grand jury testimony. When the Judiciary Committee wanted to investigate this evidence further, Trump refused to cooperate. Trump directed McGahn not to testify before Congress, and McGahn complied, even though he had left government service. The House has sought to enforce the Judiciary Committee subpoena in court, but the legal wrangling will take months to conclude.
In comparison, Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, testified before a televised Senate Watergate Committee hearing that he warned Nixon about a “cancer on the presidency.” Also, while the Watergate grand jury, with court permission, gave the House Judiciary Committee a road map into Nixon’s misdeeds, the Trump administration has blocked House efforts to get relevant grand jury information identified in the Mueller report.
One way to handle the absence of eyewitnesses and still hold Trump accountable is to include the Mueller obstruction charges in a broader article of impeachment against Trump for hindering Congress in its constitutional role in conducting an impeachment inquiry. This would allow Trump’s other misconduct to be placed before the public without the need for any further investigation into the underlying facts or presentation of eyewitnesses — and without provoking an objection of insufficient evidence.
That way, the committee could describe the Mueller report’s obstruction case, explain that it constitutes likely grounds for impeachment and show how Trump blocked the House from obtaining witness testimony or documents that would prove, or disprove, the case.
The same could be done with claims of other possible impeachable offenses where Trump’s actions also blocked congressional inquiry. Most Americans already believe that Congress is entitled to conduct a thorough impeachment inquiry.
Showing that Trump’s assault on Congress’s impeachment powers has been an ongoing feature of Trump’s presidency emphasizes his danger to our democracy and strengthens the case for his removal.