A few weeks ago, Americans got a sneak peek at what it will look like if Congress decides to impeach President Donald Trump. On Jan. 18, BuzzFeed News published a report alleging that Trump had ordered his fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about their efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign to secure Russian government approval to build a Trump Tower Moscow.
Congressional Democrats pounced on the allegation that the president had suborned perjury. It was evidence of “obstruction of justice,” a “high crime” and an impeachable offense, Democrats tweeted. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) promised to investigate.
Then, special counsel Robert Mueller disputed the report. (BuzzFeed stands by its reporting.)
Mueller’s intervention doused the latest excitement. But Democrats’ rapid-fire response revealed that they sense they’re heading toward an inevitable reckoning with this president.
“Every day it becomes more and more difficult to say we’re not interested in impeachment,” said one Democratic member of Congress.
Putting aside the disputed allegations in the BuzzFeed story, there are already more than a handful of potential areas of inquiry that carry the hallmarks of impeachable offenses. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey to relieve the “great pressure” of the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. Before that, he asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene to stop the FBI investigation. Trump has also been named as the “Individual-1” in a criminal plea agreement who ordered Cohen to break campaign finance laws.
These are only some of Trump’s known actions that directly recall the Articles of Impeachment for President Richard Nixon. There are still questions about Trump’s potentially unconstitutional receipt of foreign emoluments, whether he violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by allegedly offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse condo in the proposed Trump Tower Moscow and whether he or his campaign conspired with Russia or another foreign country to illegally aid his election victory.
“At some point it’s like if this guy did this bad stuff, he needs to be impeached and we need to do it ― even if there’s a political cost to it,” the Democratic member of Congress said.
‘Numerous Allegations Of Corruption And Obstruction’
The House Judiciary Committee, the first stop for impeachment discussions, made its first real step toward investigating potentially impeachable actions committed by the president on Tuesday. Nadler, the new chairman, announced that he’d hired two legal consultants: Norm Eisen, the former Obama administration ethics czar and chairman of the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Barry Berke, a top-flight white collar defense attorney. Eisen and Berke are both esteemed investigators who have publicly argued that Trump’s actions may already constitute impeachable offenses.
“This is a critical time in our Nation’s history,” Nadler said in a statement announcing the hires. “The President of the United States faces numerous allegations of corruption and obstruction. His conduct and crude statements threaten the basic legal, ethical, and constitutional norms that maintain our democratic institutions.”
“The House Judiciary Committee is determined to ask critical questions, gather all the information, judiciously assess the evidence, and make sure that the facts are not hidden from the American people,” the chairman added.
Nadler’s sober statement reflects the tone that Democratic leadership in Congress would like to project as they begin the methodical effort to build a public case. The understanding among most Democratic lawmakers is that impeachment is a constitutional tool that should only be used on the rare occasion when a president’s acts undermine the rule of law, threaten the liberty of American citizens or attack the integrity of the American government. The acts that could constitute impeachable offenses may include actual crimes, but are not limited to criminal acts.
Many Democrats believe that this standard requires a yet-to-be-disclosed major revelation ― like the obstruction of justice alleged by the BuzzFeed report ― to tip the current situation into impeachment territory. Nadler’s new hires show that he will begin to build a public record while waiting to see if Mueller or anyone else drops the anticipated bombshell.
‘Our Elected Officials Haven’t Done Anything’
Not everyone is so patient. Ten days after the BuzzFeed report, hundreds of activists from around the country descended on Washington to urge their elected representatives to impeach the president ― now.
The conference was hosted by Need to Impeach, an organization launched by billionaire investor Tom Steyer in 2018. Steyer has already gotten 7.1 million Americans to sign a petition calling for Trump’s impeachment. He is promising to spend up to $90 million on an advertising and grassroots campaign to pressure Congress to impeach Trump. The former hedge fund manager talked about running for president in 2020, but decided against it after looking at the polling. Instead, he is focused on raising a grassroots army to get Congress to oust Trump before the next election.
Steyer told the 300-some conference attendees that those in favor of impeachment have “won the argument,” but are losing the public relations battle.
“Our debating team got an ‘A,’ but in the schoolyard we’re still getting our ass kicked,” he said.
“This man is the crisis in our country. I don’t know why our elected officials haven’t done anything. And I'm really angry.”
Rita Fox, a 63-year-old retired veteran, came to Washington from the Tampa Bay, Florida, area to lobby her congressman, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), to support impeachment.
Fox had seen an ad for Steyer’s organization on CNN one day and went online to sign the group’s petition. She went to see him speak in St. Petersburg in September and got further involved with Need to Impeach by organizing her friends to write letters and make phone calls to elect a Democratic House majority in the 2018 elections. In January, she joined Need to Impeach’s push in Washington.
“This man is the crisis in our country,” Fox said of the president. “I don’t know why our elected officials haven’t done anything. And I’m really angry. I think I’m more angry at them because they alone have the power to do it legally. And I’m just not seeing it.”
‘Congress Is Just Getting Started’
A handful of House Democrats have already signaled a willingness to begin impeachment proceedings. In the previous Congress, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) introduced two resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment that focused on the president’s defense of neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, his retweeting of anti-Muslim hate videos and other bigoted statements he’s made. These are not what have traditionally been considered impeachable offenses.
The House voted to table both of Green’s resolutions. But the number of members who voted to debate them increased from 58 in 2017 to 66 in 2018.
This year, Green co-sponsored articles of impeachment introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.). These articles are specifically tailored to Trump’s actions in removing Comey in an effort to quash the investigation into his campaign ― an act that comes closer to the impeachable offenses approved by the House Judiciary Committee in Nixon’s case. It is almost certain that this resolution will not be used if Democratic leaders choose to move forward with impeachment.
Trump’s alleged high crimes mirror Nixon’s, former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) told the Need to Impeach conference in January. Holtzman served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Nixon.
“Mueller is way down the road. Congress is just getting started. I’d like Congress to get way down the road, too.”
Consider the parallels: Nixon ordered the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating the Watergate break-in. Trump told Coats to get Comey to stop the Russia investigation. Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre. Trump fired Comey and then he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions because he felt Sessions had not done enough to stop the investigation. Nixon ordered his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to lie to Congress. That is what the disputed BuzzFeed story alleges Trump did with Cohen. Nixon dangled pardons in front of the Watergate burglars to keep them quiet. Trump is openly dangling a pardon before his former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Despite these similarities, Holtzman told the impeachment-hungry attendees that she did not think Congress should “begin impeachment now.” Instead, she said that Congress needed to start educating the public through televised committee hearings about the allegations against the president. The only reason that Nixon was about to be impeached before he resigned and the public was prepared for that result was that Congress had held open hearings on the Watergate scandal, she argued.
“Mueller is way down the road,” Holtzman said. “Congress is just getting started. I’d like Congress to get way down the road, too.”
House Democrats appear ready to start down that path.
“I think that if it becomes clear that the president has engaged in bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors, there will be very strong pressure for impeachment,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a House Judiciary Committee member. “No doubt about it.”