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What Pelosi and Democrats should do now: A Watergate veteran charts a course


It is good that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally agreed that an official impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump will be undertaken. The outlines of a case for Trump’s removal for “high crimes and misdemeanors” have been long apparent, and were made especially clear in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that documented the many ways that Trump may have violated the federal obstruction of justice statute by trying to stymie the investigation into whether he conspired with the Russian government to subvert the 2016 presidential election.

Despite the Mueller report and evidence of other Trump misdeeds, including his seeming violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, the horrific separation of children from their parents at the border, the refusal to make our election systems resistant to future tampering and much more, many House members steadfastly resisted supporting an impeachment inquiry. But it is no surprise that the Ukraine revelations have prompted many of them to change their position, which in turn put pressure on the House speaker to change hers.

The fact that Trump has admitted that he was willing to press another country, Ukraine, into conducting an investigation to smear his most serious Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, and was apparently willing to hold up military aid to [that] Ukraine (undoubtedly to increase the pressure on it) suggested that he had learned nothing and would stop at nothing. Trump’s effort to secure foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election was just one step too far for many Democrats, as it should have been.

The real question now is how the impeachment inquiry will proceed.

Some have suggested that the inquiry should mainly focus on the Ukraine revelations. That would be a mistake. The example of the Nixon impeachment effort — the only one that succeeded in removing a president from office — is important.

Watergate involved much more than Nixon’s cover-up of the burglary into the Democratic National Committee headquarters to influence the 1972 presidential election, as multifaceted as that cover-up was. It also included Nixon’s approval of the break-in into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to smear Ellsberg (Ellsberg had stolen the Pentagon Papers), ordering illegal wiretaps of journalists and White House staffers and ordering audits of his political enemies on a so-called “enemies list.”

The impeachment charges against Nixon spelled out not just one wrongful incident, but a whole presidency run amok. That made it easier for the American people to accept his removal from office.

We should not suggest in the impeachment inquiry that Trump was guilty of only one egregious act. Nor should there be a time limit on the inquiry. It needs to be done as quickly as possible, but it must be done thoroughly and professionally.

Finally, a better method must be fashioned to conduct the investigations that are still needed. Having more than 40 committee members asking questions of witnesses creates problems, such as an incoherent narrative.

In Watergate, the Senate Watergate Committee, comprised of only seven Senators, did the investigative work on which much of the impeachment inquiry was based. That suggests that the questioning of witnesses should be done by a much smaller group with much more involvement of lawyers in the interrogation.

Congress is undertaking an extremely serious and important action to protect our democracy. It is vital that it be done in the right way.

Holtzman served on the House Judiciary Committee during its consideration of the impeachment of Richard Nixon.