As Elizabeth Holtzman recalls, “there was no will on the part of the House leadership” to start impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon in the fall of 1973.
Then, on a Saturday night in October, Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. The attorney general and his deputy both resigned rather than do so. They called it the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
And suddenly, “the country was up in arms,” Holtzman writes in her new book, The Case for Impeaching Trump. “The American people demanded action from Congress.” The House Judiciary Committee’s investigation, which would eventually lead to impeachment proceedings, began days later.
The lesson there: That supporters of the impeachment of Donald Trump shouldn’t look to the newly empowered House Democrats for leadership – but should be prepared to demand that they take action.
That’s one of many takeaways from Holtzman’s book, which examines — and advocates for — Trump’s impeachment through a Nixon lens. Holtzman, something of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of her time, served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate and went on to a long career as a prosecutor.
Another takeaway, this one considerably more worrisome for impeachment supporters, is that Nixon’s impeachment only happened because “despite President Nixon’s reprehensible conduct, the rest of the system worked and could function as a real check on a rogue president.”
Republican judges “put aside party for country and the rule of law.”
Congress and the press worked: “The Senate Watergate Committee uncovered key facts about President Nixon’s misconduct, and the Senate Judiciary Committee forced the appointment of the special Watergate prosecutor. The House Judiciary Committee voted on a bipartisan basis to hold the president accountable.” Journalists were “bold in searching out the facts and relentless in reporting them.”
By contrast, Holtzman asks:
Will this happen again if we grapple with the Trump presidency? Will the other checks fall into place, including the courts and the Congress? Will the right-wing press, a mouthpiece for President Trump, find its footing on the truth? Will the bulk of the American people still put country over party and person? The answers to these questions are unknown, but they may be the key to whether America retains its vibrant democracy.
Although all that remains very much in question, Holtzman proceeds to lay out a thorough, aggressive, and quite convincing case that by any normal or reasonable standard, Trump has committed several “great and dangerous offenses” that merit impeachment.
Three offenses make it to the top of her list.
On the Russian assault on our election in 2016, she writes:
There are only two suitable responses: unequivocal condemnation and a vigorous defense. President Trump has done neither. His outright refusal to defend and protect us against these attacks is a potentially impeachable failure “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” which rests above all else on the fair and honest election of a president, vice-president, and members of Congress.
On preventing, obstructing, impeding, and abusing the administration of justice, she writes that Trump has
unremittingly sought to manipulate our justice system to protect himself and his family and to punish his enemies—and has persistently tried to deceive the American people about his intentions and actions.
And on bribery and emoluments:
He has refused to separate himself from his business interests, which have received things of value from foreign and US governments, ranging from Chinese trademarks to payments for the use of his Washington hotel, suggesting that the presidency is open for business and that his personal business interests may influence his governmental decisions—all apparent violations of the emoluments clauses of the Constitution and possibly the ban on bribery as well.
Holtzman’s book also serves as a counterpoint to the July release – from the same publisher – of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case Against Impeach Trump.
Dershowitz – the Harvard Law professor whose transformation from Democratic firebrand to Trump defender is a puzzle – badly misreads the Constitution’s language on impeachment, Holtzman writes.
Dershowitz seeks to transform impeachment into a criminal proceeding, importing the trappings of a criminal trial into the process, including a requirement that a president’s guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. He argues that the Constitution’s “explicit words . .. require conviction of a specified crime as a prerequisite to impeachment.” In fact, no words require that, nor has any impeachment proceeding against a president ever raised that as a condition.
Instead, Holtzman quotes Yale Law School professor Charles L. Black Jr., in his iconic 1998 book, Impeachment: A Handbook:
I think we can say that high Crimes and Misdemeanors, in the constitutional sense, ought to be held to be those offenses which are rather obviously wrong, whether or not “criminal,” and which so seriously threaten the order of political society as to make pestilent and dangerous the continuation in power of their perpetrator.
One piece of her own past that Holtzman curiously omits is her coauthorship, in 2006, of The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens, where she proposed four articles of impeachment related to illegal surveillance, taking the country to war on false pretenses, reckless indifferent to the welfare of the troops, and torture.
Perhaps she doesn’t want to remind people that pretty much all of Washington ignored her arguments then.
But I don’t think she needs to worry. Impeachment is clearly going to be a major subject of discussion, if not action, in the coming months.
Her book certainly comes at a more opportune time than American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman’s The Case for Impeachment, first published in April 2017.
And it joins a rapidly filling-up bookshelf that also includes three considerably more wishy-washy offerings: To End a Presidency, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz; Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide by Cass Sunstein; and collection of essays entitled Impeachment: An American History.