Opinion: Echoes of Watergate Could Spell Danger for Trump

But the bar for impeachment is high

Bipartisan consensus on impeaching the president, as was the case with President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal, can be reached only if the American people demand it, Holtzman writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Bipartisan consensus on impeaching the president, as was the case with President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal, can be reached only if the American people demand it, Holtzman writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 21, 2017 at 5:03am

In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard M. Nixon, the only impeachment effort to force a president from office in our country’s history. Today, many Americans, alarmed at President Donald Trump’s conduct, want him to be impeached and removed from office.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, I found that impeachment was not easy or quick. Still, that impeachment effort may provide a useful road map for how to proceed today.

The Constitution sets a high bar for impeachment and removal: the only grounds are treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors (meaning serious abuses of power). A president cannot be removed simply because people disagree with his policies.

Impeachment is also extremely cumbersome. It takes a majority vote in the House, and a trial and two-thirds vote in the Senate, to convict and remove a sitting president. This high bar means that Republicans will have to join with Democrats on impeachment. That bipartisanship can be reached — even in a Republican-controlled Congress — but only, as we saw with President Nixon, if the American people demand it.

An ‘overwhelming case’

It was the enormous public outcry for congressional action, after President Nixon ordered the special prosecutor investigating him to be fired, that triggered the Nixon impeachment proceedings. Even though President Nixon won his 1972 election in a landslide (unlike Donald Trump), public opinion shifted as evidence of his misdeeds grew.

That was the result of key investigations conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee and the Watergate special prosecutor. Americans strongly backed impeachment based on an overwhelming case against the president, including Oval Office tapes of his incriminating conversations.

The Judiciary Committee charged the president with covering up the Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee during his presidential campaign. The cover-up included ordering the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation of the break-in and paying hush money to the burglars.

President Nixon was also charged with abusing the powers of his office, including ordering audits of people on his infamous “enemies” list.

In the end, the full Judiciary Committee supported impeachment, and President Nixon resigned to avoid being removed from office by the Congress.

Today, there are echoes of Watergate that could spell danger for President Trump.

Most serious is the current FBI investigation into whether Trump’s campaign associates colluded with Russian officials in the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee — a break-in, like Watergate. If collusion occurred and Trump was involved, impeachment, even prosecution, could follow.

Moreover, any attempt by President Trump to interfere with this investigation — like President Nixon with the Watergate investigation — could constitute an impeachable offense.

In fact, the White House reportedly leaned on intelligence officials to disavow publicly Trump aides’ connections with the Russians. This could constitute a gross abuse of power if the purpose was to mislead Congress and/or the public, or to exert pressure on an ongoing investigation.

The FBI is also probing former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who lied about talking to the Russian ambassador about sanctions, as well as other Trump campaign, transition and White House associates.

Speculation is rife that Trump authorized these conversations and that dropping U.S. sanctions may have been discussed as a reward for the Russians’ hacking of Clinton and the DNC. If true, this set of events could also spell impeachment trouble.

Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from any Department of Justice investigation, though necessary and appropriate, it will still be critical for the public to demand strict oversight and scrutiny of any investigation to ensure its thoroughness and independence.

Bribery is another explicit constitutional ground for impeachment. Aside from raising serious questions about conflicts of interest and violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, President Trump’s refusal to separate his presidency from his far-flung financial empire opens up myriad opportunities for possible bribery charges against him.

Under the president’s business arrangements, payments made by third parties to his businesses wind up in his pocket, including payments intended to influence his official acts. Since people will try to influence the president through his businesses, if the president is aware of the purpose of those payments he may be committing an impeachable offense.

Moving forward?

Despite the difficulty of impeachment — including the difficulty of getting the Republican Congress to conduct needed investigations of presidential wrongdoing — some members of Congress are not passively waiting around.

New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, for example, recently introduced a special resolution to obtain all information from the Department of Justice related to President Trump’s Russia dealings, conflicts of interest, and ethics violations.

While the House Judiciary Committee rejected this legislation in a party-line vote, facts developed could build a case for impeachment, and with enough public outcry it may be increasingly difficult for Republicans to continue stonewalling this kind of effort in the future.

In the Nixon impeachment, Congress and the American people sought to protect our democracy against a president who threatened it.

Nothing less is at stake now, which is why it is so important to understand the mechanisms, such as impeachment, that our Constitution provides to preserve our system of government.

Elizabeth Holtzman is a former U.S. representative from New York. She won national attention for her role on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate and was subsequently elected district attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn). She is a Harvard Law School graduate and author of “The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens” (2006).