This first article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon stemmed from illegal activity during the 1972 presidential campaign and specifically indicted the sitting president for
8. Making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted with respect to allegations of misconduct on the part of personnel of the executive branch of the United States and personnel of the Committee for the Re-election of the President, and that there was no involvement of such personnel in such misconduct: or
9. endeavoring to cause prospective defendants, and individuals duly tried and convicted, to expect favoured treatment and consideration in return for their silence or false testimony, or rewarding individuals for their silence or false testimony.
Now, President Donald Trump stands accused of engaging in illegal activity during the 2016 presidential campaign and of making false and misleading statements about those activities. And there is open speculation about the prospect that Trump might pardon a key player in his scandal-plagued 2016 campaign, campaign manager Paul Manafort.
This combination of the historical record and the contemporary circumstance points to the essential takeaway from a weekend of fevered rumination regarding the detailed allegation that candidate Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal payments in order to prevent revelations of Trump’s personal wrongdoing before the 2016 election.
It is impossible to avoid the impeachment discussion, as the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, acknowledged following Friday’s release of a sentencing memo in which Manhattan US attorney’s office prosecutors explained that “In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”
“Individual-1” is the sitting president of the United States.
He now stands accused of what is, by historical definition, an impeachable offense. To deny this fact is to deny the reality and the intent of the Constitution to which members of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate will swear their fealty when the 116th Congress is constituted in January.
Nadler, a serious student of the Constitution and its consequences, recognized this in his response to the allegation that Trump directed the distribution of hush payments with an eye toward influencing the results of the 2016 election—and to the evidence that he has, since becoming president, engaged in deliberate efforts to discredit inquiries into his wrongdoing.
“Certainly, they’re impeachable offenses, because, even though they were committed before the President became President, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office,” says Nadler, a veteran member of the Judiciary Committee whose expertise on matters of presidential accountability and impeachment is considerable.
Nadler’s background informs his approach. He knows that impeachment is a constitutional response to presidential wrongdoing, which extends from the duty of the legislative branch to check and balance the executive. As such, it is influenced by political considerations. “You don’t necessarily launch an impeachment against the President because he committed an impeachable offense. There are several things you have to look at,” the congressman told CNN on Sunday.
For instance: “One, were impeachable offenses committed, how many, et cetera. Secondly, how important were they? Do they rise to the gravity where you should undertake an impeachment? An impeachment is an attempt to effect or overturn the result of the last election and [you] should do it only for very serious situations.”
Nadler’s framing is correct. It is necessary to build the case for impeachment, especially when control of the Congress is divided between critics of the president and loyal allies of the president.
There is a right way to impeach a president, as New Jersey Congressman Peter Rodino, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate inquiry into Nixon’s wrongdoing, illustrated. Unlike the bumbling Republicans who attempted to remove former President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999, Rodino approached the duty of the Congress to hold the president to account as an inquiry that built a case for impeachment.
A savvy chairman who sought to build bipartisan support in Congress and in the country, Rodino made impeachment politically palatable, and ultimately inevitable—so much so that Nixon resigned rather than face the formal process.
Like Rodino, Nadler understands what is at stake, and what is possible. His statements are sound, and appropriate to the moment. What they indicate, however, is that the impeachment of Donald Trump is no longer an unimaginable or extreme prospect.
For the past two years, for reasons of personal and political caution, top congressional Democrats suggested—to the immense frustration of grassroots Democrats and at least a few of their colleagues—that impeachment of Trump was “off the table.”
There are no guarantees as to where the ongoing inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller will lead. Nor are there guarantees regarding the path that will be taken by the Judiciary Committee or the Congress. But the days of dismissing discussions about impeachment as a possible and practical response to this president’s wrongdoing have ended.
Impeachment is now on the table.
John Nichols has written extensively about the history of impeachment. He authored the foreword to the new book The Constitution Demands It: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump (Melville House), by Ron Fein, John Bonifaz, and Ben Clements.