Impeach Trump? Democrats Need to Chill

Think about this: History has smiled on bipartisan deliberations that brought down Nixon. The Republican case against Clinton? Please.

Not such a smart idea.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Politicians and skiers share one thing: It doesn't end well for either if they get ahead of their skis. That's something for Democrats to remember as some of their base starts to demand impeaching President Donald Trump.

Representative Maxine Waters of California and a few other elected officials, along with some left-wing advocacy groups, are suggesting that support for impeachment should be a litmus test for Democratic candidates. This movement draws fuel from polls showing rising public support for impeachment, especially from a solid majority of Democrats.

QuickTake Q&A: About Impeachment

It's a dangerous idea, as likely to end in a painful tumble as an inexpert skier's plunge down a steep, bumpy slope. There may be respectable constitutional arguments for impeachment, which doesn't require proof of a criminal act, but they should not be pursued before special counsel Robert Mueller completes his investigation beginning with an inquiry into Trump connections with Russia (the president insists there were none.)

Still, there's pressure on 2018 Democratic congressional candidates to endorse impeachment despite the opposition of their party's congressional leaders.

These Democrats should look to the two modern examples: a methodical, deliberative, bipartisan impeachment process in 1974 that history has honored, and a cheap, rushed partisan effort in 1998 that left lasting scars.

With Republicans in control of Congress for at least another 19 months, impeachment is a moot point anyway. But if lots of Democrats commit themselves to the partisan approach taken by Republicans in 1998 it could backfire in next year's elections, or force Democrats into premature actions if they do take over Congress.

In 1973, as evidence mounted against President Richard Nixon in the Watergate crisis, a few left-wing Democrats demanded a rush to impeachment. They were rebuffed by their party's congressional mandarins, the Senate and House majority leaders Mike Mansfield and Tip O'Neill.

Instead, a case was carefully crafted by two special prosecutors, some tough judges and a select Senate committee led by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a Democrat, and Howard Baker of Tennessee, a Republican. Their work paved the way in 1974 for the House Judiciary Committee, which then conducted its own six-month, deeply serious bipartisan inquiry before voting three counts of impeachment in July of 1974. Nixon resigned in August, before the full House had a chance to vote.

By contrast, in 1998 Republicans waited until after the midterm elections. Then, with only perfunctory Judiciary Committee hearings, they rushed through in a matter of weeks, on a partisan basis, a vote to impeach President Bill Clinton basically for lying about sex with a White House intern. The process was forced forward by the House Republican whip, Tom Delay, who saw it as a political winner, and then by Speaker Newt Gingrich. There was hypocrisy galore: Gingrich, at the time marred to his second wife, was having an affair with a House staffer. (He later divorced his wife and married the staffer, who has now been nominated by Trump to be ambassador to the Vatican.)

After the hurried impeachment narrowly passed the House on a partisan vote, it fell well short of the two-thirds majority required in the Senate, where it was opposed by all Democrats and some prominent Republicans.

Clinton's actions were atrocious, but surely not what the framers envisioned as the "high crimes and misdemeanors" specified in the U.S. Constitution's impeachment clause. 1  Congress should simply have voted to censure Clinton, which would have attracted Democratic votes. One of the better Judiciary Committee Republicans, Jim Rogan of California, lost his seat in the next election to Adam Schiff, now the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation. It was the low point of the stellar congressional tenure of Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, now the state's senior senator.

And it's not a model any Democrat should emulate.

Based on what we know today, there may well be actions taken against Trump associates. Whether anything leads to Trump himself will be determined by the congressional fact-finding efforts or by Mueller.

Any effort to try to politically short-circuit this process will end in a pratfall. Just like reckless skiing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. "The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Article 2, Section 4

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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