Nancy Pelosi has set House Democrats on a road that may lead to Trump's impeachment

Today’s House investigation of Trump mirrors the initial approach taken by the Senate Watergate Committee — with a few key differences.
Image: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on May 2, 2019.Yuri Gripas / Reuters
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By Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has placed House Democrats on the same path that Congress took with President Richard M. Nixon in the early 1970s — a path that ultimately led to his resignation on the eve of being impeached.

Today, Pelosi is supporting the ongoing House Judiciary Committee investigation into President Donald Trump and the Mueller report. Left unsaid is that this is similar to the kind of investigation that would take place if the panel were conducting a formal impeachment proceeding. The investigation will serve to educate the American people about the depth and extent of Trump’s malfeasance just as the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigation did with Nixon.

The investigation will serve to educate the American people about the depth and extent of Trump’s malfeasance just as the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigation did with Nixon.

Pelosi’s position recognizes that the American people must be fully informed about the specific abuses laid out in the Mueller report. It also recognizes that public support currently is not there for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Polls taken after the report’s release show that only 34 percent and 37 percent of the American people support moving to impeachment.

The need for the public to be educated on the Mueller report’s analysis of Trump transgressions became all the more clear with Tuesday’s stunning revelation that, in a March 27 letter, special counsel Robert Mueller challenged Attorney General William Barr’s misleading summary of the report in Barr’s March 24 letter to Congress.

According to Mueller, the Barr summary “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.” Mueller said in his letter, “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

By repeatedly demonstrating his bias in favor of Trump, by discrediting and misrepresenting the Mueller report and by refusing to provide the House Judiciary Committee with an unredacted copy of the 448-page document, it may turn out to be Barr who will soon face an impeachment proceeding in the House.

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On March 4, the House Judiciary Committee announced an investigation “into the alleged obstruction of justice, public corruption and other abuses of power by President Trump, his associates, and members of his Administration.”

This is historically parallel to what the Senate did on Feb. 7, 1973, when it created the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, also known as the Senate Watergate Committee, to investigate the extent to which “illegal, improper or unethical activities” occurred in the 1972 presidential campaign and election.

Today’s House Judiciary Committee’s investigation of Trump mirrors that initial approach taken by the Senate Watergate Committee.

It is a mistake to assume that the American people know the many important details of Trump’s wrongdoing revealed in the 448-page Mueller report. That is why this story must be told to the American people through televised congressional hearings. The Mueller report’s printed words of Trump’s wrongdoings must be brought to life through televised hearings and other media formats, just as the story of Nixon’s wrongdoings was told through the Senate Watergate hearings.

In this age of the internet and social media, more than 20 million Americans watched on television the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. And that number does not include the millions more who streamed it on their phones and computers or who watched in public places. Similarly, 19.5 million Americans watched on television the June 2017 testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Millions more watched on live streams.

In 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee conducted an extensive investigation and held nationally televised hearings that educated the American people about Nixon’s widespread abuses. The panel began its public hearings on May 17, 1973 and held hearings on a regular basis until Aug. 7, 1973. “Thirty-seven witnesses testified during the period, hundreds of exhibits and documents were introduced into the record,” according to the committee’s final report, “and over 3000 pages of testimony were transcribed.”

More important, 319 hours of Watergate Committee hearings were broadcast live to the American public and 85 percent of U.S. households watched some portion of them. The hearings told a dramatic story of the Watergate break-in and the massive cover up Nixon authorized in its wake. These broadcasts riveted the nation, topped by the spellbinding testimony of then former White House Counsel John Dean.

Combined with the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre on October 20, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings laid the groundwork for the Nixon impeachment proceedings by the House Judiciary Committee, which formally began on Feb. 6, 1974.

Unlike the Senate Watergate Committee investigation, however, the current House Judiciary Committee investigation is not starting from scratch.

Mueller has produced an extensive report rich with details about Trump’s misdeeds. It contains multiple examples of the president’s repeated efforts to obstruct justice. This is a key issue being pursued by the current House Judiciary Committee — just as obstruction of justice was a central element in the Nixon impeachment proceeding.

By pursuing an in-depth investigation and televised hearings into Trump’s wrongdoing, the House Judiciary Committee has undertaken a mission to ensure that the American people are educated by a visualized presentation about Trump’s malfeasance. If the committee were to instead immediately undertake a formal impeachment proceeding, the national debate would focus on the conclusory decision about whether to impeach Trump — at a time when national polls indicate the American people do not support impeachment.

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Trump recently has made clear he is going to do everything he can to obstruct the Judiciary Committee investigation — just as he repeatedly took steps to obstruct the Mueller investigation. He is stonewalling the House in an unprecedented attack on its constitutional responsibilities and has declared, “We’re fighting all the subpoenas.” He is prepared to try to use executive privilege to try to stop current and former administration officials from testifying in Congress.

Trump’s announced efforts to obstruct the Judiciary Committee investigation will be resisted by the House, which in the end may have to resort to alternative approaches.

And because the televised testimony of Don McGahn to the House Judiciary Committee will likely have the same powerful impact that John Dean’s Senate Watergate testimony had in 1973, Trump appears particularly determined to block McGahn from testifying.

Trump’s announced efforts to obstruct the Judiciary Committee investigation will be resisted by the House, which in the end may have to resort to alternative approaches.

One alternative would be to use a Barr impeachment proceeding to seek the unredacted Mueller report and grand jury information and to subpoena witnesses — because an impeachment proceeding has greater authority in the courts. This could end up providing access for the Barr proceeding to much of the information that would also be valuable for the Trump investigation.

After the Judiciary Committee’s investigation of Trump is completed, the House Democrats can decide whether to pursue a Trump impeachment proceeding or take other actions to hold him accountable for the enormous damage he has done to our democracy, our Constitution and our country.

In Nixon’s case, he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, on the eve of being impeached by the House.