When the House Judiciary Committee was preparing to vote on articles of impeachment against a sitting president in the summer of 1974, a former justice of the peace from Watertown set the stage when he declared, "President Nixon's conduct in office is a case history of the abuse of presidential power."
Congressman Robert Kastenmeier, by then a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and one of its most respected members, was not merely focusing on the most obvious high crimes and misdemeanors that had been uncovered during the Watergate inquiry. He was speaking of the attempts by Nixon and his aides to thwart that uncovering.
This is important to remember as the House Judiciary Committee now turns its attention to the question of whether to impeach another president. As with Nixon, the abuses of office that President Trump has engaged in are dramatic. He stands accused of blocking aid to Ukraine as part of an effort to get that country’s government to launch an inquiry aimed at embarrassing a key rival to Trump’s 2020 re-election run, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But Kastenmeier, who left the committee in 1991 and passed away in 2015, at age 91, would undoubtedly remind his successors to pay close attention to Trump’s attempts to meddle with, undermine and prevent the current inquiry. It is often said of Nixon’s downfall that “the cover-up was worse than the crime.” The same holds for Trump.
Trump and Nixon are, to be sure, different figures in our history. Nixon was a former member of the U.S. House and Senate who had served as vice president. He knew the ways of Washington and thought he could game the process by obstructing it. But, like Trump, he got caught when his own aides began to testify against him. What they revealed was, in the words of former White House counsel John Dean, “a cancer growing on the presidency.”
Dean recalled suggesting to Nixon that “if the cancer was not removed the president himself would be killed by it.” But, in a very real sense, the cancer that extends from efforts to obstruct legitimate investigations into wrongdoing by the executive is more than that. It is a threat to the presidency itself, to the system of checks and balances, and to the constitution that the founders of the American experiment established 232 years ago.
The first article of impeachment against Nixon recognized this. It explained that “in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Nixon had “prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice.”
Specifically, he was charged with “interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and congressional committees.”
It was well understood then — among both Republicans and Democrats — that “interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations” of alleged wrongdoing by a president and those around him constituted an impeachable offense. And it should be well understood now.
If a president can get away with obstructing an inquiry, he can avoid accountability. If that prospect exists for a president, any president, then the system of checks and balances collapses.
This is a point that Kastenmeier made to the Judiciary Committee in regard to the refusal of the Nixon White House to cooperate with congressional subpoenas. “Without the power to subpoena papers, materials, things necessary, the Congress cannot meet its constitutional responsibilities. I submit that for the chief magistrate to prevent the Congress from meeting its congressional duty, its constitutional duty, is no different than when the president himself violates the Constitution. The offense is just as grave.”
What the Judiciary Committee must recognize this week, as it ponders the evidence against Trump, is that it must look beyond the Ukraine scandal. There has to be a consideration of all the issues raised by Trump’s refusals to cooperate, his witness tampering, and all the other evidence of obstruction. And that evidence must be gathered together and presented to the full Congress in articles of impeachment.
There will be, it now seems clear, a number of Judiciary Committee Republicans who are willing to suspend the system of checks and balances in order to serve their political master. But that cannot change the truth that is self-evident: Donald Trump engaged in a pattern of conduct that invites comparison with the conduct that led the House Judiciary Committee to approve articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Democrats on the committee (and any responsible Republicans who might finally feel the call of conscience) must shoulder the burden of the present and the future by taking obstruction issues seriously, and by addressing them in articles of impeachment.
This is not about the specifics of what has been learned and what has not been learned by the impeachment inquiry up to this point. This is about the specifics of a constitution that can only work of the president cooperates with congressional investigations. As Kastenmeier explained to the committee 45 years ago, when it was considering an article of impeachment dealing with Nixon’s refusal to provide materials subpoenaed by the House. “This committee said at the time we needed this material,” he said. “The president at the time said he would refuse to turn the material to us. We measure this particular article in the time in which it is seen, not in terms of whether subsequent to that fact we have or have not acquired sufficient evidence to make the determinations we are set upon today.”
Robert Kastenmeier and his colleagues on a committee that focused serious attention on obstruction issues got it right in 1974. Now, his successors on the Judiciary Committee must do the same.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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