Impeachment: The Politics and the Ethics of Follow Through

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Watergate Hearings

Analysis (April 21, 2019) The Democrats are between hard rock and a hard place. They also remember a recent lesson on impeachment. This is when the Republican House, in a fit of moral outrage, impeached Bill Clinton. They know what happened next. The Senate, in the hands of Democrats, acquitted the president. In short, he was not removed from office. It gets worst. Republicans lost a lot of votes in the Senate as well. It was, in short, a dog and pony show that led to the belief by the American people that poor Bill was a victim of the system. His popularity went up by leaps and bounds. It was one reason for his reelection. This is not something Democrats want to do for Donald Trump. The last thing they want is to help him in 2020.

However, Democrats forget the other lesson from Watergate at their peril. While the logic that Democrats are using is that this process hurt the Republican, it really did not. They were either rewarded by voters because voters have very short memories, or because the impeachment process activated the Republican base. This comes from the Clinton impeachment, and they forget that Gerald Ford was voted out in 1976 by an angry electorate. They already got the biggest wave election since 1976. However, Democratic leadership is still trying to slow down the process and say this should be up to the voters.

The current Democratic leadership was young and sprite at the time of the Clinton saga. They saw what happened and learned that impeachment without likely conviction is not worth it. There is more to this way of thinking, however. This leadership is also part of the moderate center-right Democratic Party. They are, to be blunt, afraid of their own shadows and Republicans. They have continued to pull the Democratic Party to the right over the last generation or so. And now they are faced with a young generation that wants to hold this president accountable and does not remember the Clinton years. They are also trying to hold these progressives at bay since their party is realigning away from them. So this is not just about impeachment. It is about much more.

We are also faced with this via Lawrence Tribe, Constitutional Scholar:

Two things matter: 1. The House can no longer let the odds of Senate conviction hold impeachment back. It’s a point of principle, as @SenWarren said. 2. Only fully public hearings, visually enacting Mueller’s evidence and findings, will move public opinion.

Professor Tribe is basing his views not just on the Constitution. He also drew a different lesson than Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the party leadership. His views come straight from Watergate. Until those Congressional hearings started, the American public was lukewarm, at best, about Watergate. It was an inside the beltway thing. Not until public televised hearings started did public opinion started to shift. This is precisely where we are right now. This is about the beltway and most people outside, care about healthcare, jobs and other kitchen table issues.

The Democratic leadership is afraid of their own shadow and making Trump more popular. The president knows that his base loves him, why he is accusing all his enemies of Presidential harassment. He is also speaking about the deep state, which will do all to get rid of him. In some ways, this is similar to the right-wing conspiracy of the Clinton years. Mind you, there was an effort from the far right to destroy Clinton’s presidency, and the campaign from Trump has authoritarian markers to it. Then there are the polls, which are hardly budging since the election. Those who think Trump is the greatest president ever would not have a problem with him shooting somebody to death on fifth avenue, as then-candidate Trump stated on Twitter. He read his base well. He is part of that sector of the country that practices grievance politics. His followers like him, for sticking it to the libs, or other grievance based reasons.

Status loss and a bad economy in certain regions of the country are contributing to the divisions of the country. There is a deep-seated fear that impeachment would further divide the country. I have written in the past that the country is, for all intents and purposes, in the midst of a cold civil war. Carl Bernstein has also said this on CNN, more than a few times. However, the country was deeply divided because of Vietnam, and we seem to have forgotten that past.

The Mueller Report told us a few things. The first is that it is apparently legal to get help from a foreign government. Or perhaps that those who engaged in an actual conspiracy were good enough not to leave enough evidence where it could rise to a criminal act. I will repeat what Robert Mueller wrote in the report, collusion is not anywhere in the American criminal act. So we are talking about conspiracy, and he did not find enough evidence where he could charge.

It also told us that the hate of Hillary Clinton has not abated from the early days of Travelgate. She has become a symbol of status loss of fear. She will soon be replaced, as she fades into the background. Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will become the next strong women to be demonized and converted into witches. Perhaps both, and perhaps more women will become symbols of both fear and hate.

Incidentally, this is hardly about Clinton or her actions. This is about a grievance culture that wants women to go back to the kitchen where they supposedly belong. Strong women scare the base of the Republican Party since they challenge traditional roles. So do minorities and it is for similar reasons.

Obstruction of Justice the SCO Left a Path for Congress

We know from the Mueller report that Russia interfered in the American election. There is no doubt on this. Moreover, according to the report, there are about ten instances where the president tried to interfere with the investigation. The argument that his allies and the president have made that he was exonerated do not wash. The report shows a troublesome picture of a White House that is in disarray, and that runs not unlike a mafia family,

It was his own staff who saved him by refusing to follow what amounted to illegal orders. For example, when Trump wanted to get rid of the Special Prosecutor, he called Don McGahn, at the time White House Counsel, and ordered him to get rid of Mueller.

McGahn quit, instead of triggering a modern-day Saturday’s Night Massacre. Trump did not go down the line, like Richard Nixon did, which resulted in the firing of Archibald Cox. However, this is not the only incident. In effect, there were others that if Trump was not president, he would have been indicted. Ironically, the Justice Department Memo that led to this dubious standard, came from Janet Reno, who was the Attorney General for Bill Clinton and was written after that whole process.

There is a culture in this White House that is at the very least dishonest to the core. However, it is not limited to the White House. I would like to pretend as much. It would be a nice fantasy. Indeed, this culture is part of Washington and to a lesser or greater extent includes both parties.

At this moment it is likely worst with the Republican Party. Both Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham demanded the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Why? He lied, and he lied over a very embarrassing personal affair. Like most presidents over the history of this country, he had an affair and did not want to admit to it. The fact that he lied was enough for some Republicans to call for the impeachment of the president.

The same people who were all gung-ho about removing Clinton from office, are defending President Trump by hook or crook. If we applied their language from back then, it applies right now. Yet, they seem unable, or unwilling, to see the irony of their words at the present moment. What is more, they seem to not care.

The Democrats have a slightly different problem. The leadership is beholden to the same exact economic interests that fund Republicans. They have supported Neoliberalism all these years. They are also incrementalists by nature and institutionalists. They also learned the wrong lessons from the Clinton impeachment. Ergo, even though Trump would have been indicted for obstruction of justice if he was citizen Trump, they are all but unwilling to use the constitutional powers granted to them.

In fact, this is not the first time Speaker Nancy Pelosi refuses to use those powers, After the United States was taken to war on false pretenses by George W Bush, possibly committing a war crime, Pelosi refused to entertain impeachment. Her party all but won the House on an implied promise that the president would be held accountable. This was in 2006, and the lesson drawn was that Presidents could do whatever they wanted. If anybody is surprised that Pelosi is following this path again, they should not. Nor that Trump drew that lesson and is taking advantage of it right now.

It is the same Clinton administration that is responsible for the Department of Justice memo that prevents a sitting president from facing indictment. This is nowhere in the Constitution. Mueller’s hands were tied, ironically by a Democratic President’s AG who saw what happened to his boss.

The Danger to the Republic

There are a few things to be said about this. The first is that this is quite dangerous since doing nothing about breaking the law will teach future presidents that all accountability is off. They are above the law. And if they are above the law, then we now have elected kings. Sooner or later we will go back to the divine right of kinds if we are not careful.

This was not the objective of the founders. In fact, they would be horrified by the Trump administration on multiple grounds. The first is the fact that the report found Trump benefited from the actions of a foreign power. Whether the Special Prosecutor found enough for a conspiracy charge, or not, is immaterial. To the founders, there are multiple instances where the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution comes into play. They wrote that into the foundational document to prevent a president, any president, from putting the interests of foreign countries ahead of those of the United States. There is evidence that Trump is enriching himself from the office, and he has yet to release his taxes. While releasing taxes were not part of the original constitution, since taxes were not part of the Republic until the early part of the 20th century, they could reveal multiple conflicts of interests. This is why the president is resisting by all means.

These tax declarations may also reveal tax fraud, or that the president is nowhere near as wealthy as he claims. He was in real estate, and while frowned upon by the law, futzing actual numbers of one's wealth is not uncommon when getting loans. It is just rarely enforced.

Then there is the fact that his campaign accepted what would be stolen goods from a foreign power. The fact that this was deemed legal should shock all of us to our core. If you, or I, accept stolen goods, we will face prosecution. But since there was nothing in writing the SCO did not find enough to charge Trump or any member of his family. Oh, never mind that meetings were held, and all this was done pretty much in the open.

It betrays protection for the wealthy. We are seeing what in effect is the definition of an oligarchy, where the well-heeled and connected can pretty much get away with anything. These risks trust in the legal system, which is already pretty frayed in some sectors of society. This will continue the process and will only hurt democracy itself and our institutions.

Obstruction raises questions as well, and whether Congress will decide to pursue it. If they do not, because they are afraid of the politics (currently they cannot get a conviction in the Senate), then they are surrendering their Constitutional obligations. In effect, Democrats will become complicit with the end of the regular order and the Republic.

Then there is Watergate. The American people did not get engaged until hearings started in the House. The politics were somewhat similar to our present as well. Republicans would not have pursued this until those hearings started. This is the lesson that Democrats did not learn. Watergate happened after the public got engaged, and that did not happen until televised hearings began. This is the chicken and the egg situation, but so far Democratic leadership is stuck in the 1990s, not 1973.

If hearings are held, will this go the same way? We do not know. The country is far more divided these days than it was in 1973. Or we like to tell ourselves this. The country was also extremely divided over the Vietnam War, and the split was similar, in some respects, to our current era. So this has to be taken into account.

There is something else. Legislators took an oath to protect the Constitution against enemies both foreign and domestic. They have an obligation to that document, not the next election, or their political party. Professor Tribe said this, and I happen to agree. Both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Mitt Romney have already told us that the actions released in the report are very serious. One is running for the presidency as a Democrat, the other is a Republican. Take that as you may.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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