Jules Witcover: A familiar route to impeachment
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump certainly is no Richard Nixon, but his strategy to avoid possible impeachment is beginning to look more and more like the one that failed to avoid Nixon’s ouster in the Watergate scandal of more than 43 years ago.
The surprise decision of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to resign, if that was what it was rather than being pushed out, was hauntingly similar to the departures of the two top Justice Department officials in 1973 who quit rather than follow Nixon’s orders to fire special Watergate investigator Archibald Cox.
In what came to be called The Saturday Night Massacre, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and then his chief deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both loyal moderate Republicans, also stepped aside. They refused to follow Nixon’s odious and nakedly transparent efforts to derail the investigation into the president’s role in the cover-up of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee of the previous year.
The task thus fell to the No. 3 man at Justice, Solicitor General Robert Bork (who later was Ronald Reagan’s choice to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, but whose nomination was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Democrat Joe Biden). Bork characteristically saluted his president’s order, and Cox, a distinguished Boston lawyer and educator, was gone.
He was replaced by distinguished moderate Texas lawyer Leon Jaworski, who completed the job as White House tapes chronicling Nixon’s role were ordered by the Supreme Court to be made public. Their ugly and confessional contents led to the president’s resignation rather than face certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the subsequent Senate trial.
Nixon’s actions clearly matched the standard of obstruction of justice as implied under Article II, Section 4 for “Conviction of Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Presumably, Trump’s reported approach to then-FBI Director James Comey to overlook allegations of lying by Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to which Flynn pleaded guilty, would similarly apply to this president.
The current investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russia meddling in the 2016 election and possible Trump campaign collusion has been so exhaustive as to suggest other allegations are being explored as grounds for impeachment.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, has steered through it approval of public release of a GOP staff memo alleging anti-Trump influences on the committee. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, according to The Washington Post, said, “We get this memo out there, and people will see the fix was in” against the president.
Apparently, so concerned were Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, overseeing the Mueller inquiry, and FBI Director Christopher Wray that public release of the memo would jeopardize the integrity of the Intelligence Committee’s work that they personally urged House Speaker Paul Ryan intervene. Meanwhile, the memo went to Trump to rule on its disposition, with committee Democrats rebuffed in their effort to weigh in with their own assessment of it.
The whole partisan skirmish seems to amount to an all-out effort by Nunes, a onetime member of Trump’s transition team and openly in league with White House defenders of the president, to discredit Mueller and his investigative team of professionals before they have responsibly chased down all leads, and letting the chips fall where they may.
More than four decades ago, Richard Nixon misjudged his power and it cost him the presidency and the approval of history. Today it appears that Donald Trump may be making the same mistake in thinking he can outfox the country’s most dedicated practitioners and upholders of the rule of law in the world’s greatest democracy.
Impeachment may indeed be more difficult this time, with Trump’s party in control of both houses of Congress. That is, unless the Democrats can regain control of one or both congressional bodies in the November elections. Or at least the House, which would bring any charges as the prosecutorial body, with the Senate then voting for or against conviction. Even that long-shot of a year ago now seems not as impossible as it appeared then.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.