Not ready for impeachment proceedings? Then set up a select committee.

John Dean before the Senate Watergate Committee, May 1973.
John Dean before the Senate Watergate Committee, May 1973.

House Democrats who aren’t politically ready to begin impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump quite yet — but worry that none of the various oversight committees have the means or the clout to build the strongest public case – have a third alternative.

They could follow the Watergate model, and establish a select committee.

The Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Senate Watergate Committee, was established in 1973, by S. Res. 60 (here’s the full text, in case anyone wants to use it as a model.)

As the Senate website explains:

The resolution empowered four Democrats and three Republicans to subpoena witnesses and materials, provided them with a $500,000 budget, and required them to submit a final report by February 28, 1974. The resolution granted the committee the power to investigate the break-in and any subsequent cover-up of criminal activity, as well as “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the Presidential campaign of 1972, including political espionage and campaign finance practices.”

It was a different, less poisonous time, of course. The vote in the Senate was unanimous (with 23 abstentions), something quite inconceivable today when the parties can’t agree on basic facts and the stink of the House Select Committee of Benghazi still persists.

But the precedent is a mighty one. The Watergate Committee, headed by North Carolina Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin, famously held two weeks of riveting, televised hearings in May 1973, whose educational value to the public can not be overstated. The fact-finding continued, dovetailing with criminal and special counsel investigations, and it was fully a year later that the House Judiciary Committee began its impeachment proceedings.

Just one month after the 2016 election, prompted by the first news reports on the CIA’s analysis of Russian interference with the 2016 election, four powerful senators called for a select committee. Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed issued a joint statement that the appropriate response to the new information was beyond any one existing committee’s ability. “Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks,” they wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly rejected the suggestion, saying the Senate Intelligence Committee could handle it. But McCain continued to argue for a select committee as long as he lived. Former vice president Joe Biden cheered him on in a tweet.

Talking to MSNBC in May 2017, McCain said, “we have to, in my view, have this select committee. There are different committees in the House and the Senate, different jurisdictions, … but I think it has reached the size and scope … that it requires a select committee.”

All that said, shifting the investigation of any — not to mention all – impeachable offenses to a select committee would be a major change of plans for the Democrats, and in particular for the committee leaders who have already announced their oversight plans.

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday describes a key meeting in September between Majority-leader-to-be Nancy Pelosi and three investigative committee chairmen-in-waiting: Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, New York’s Jerrold Nadler, of the Judiciary Committee, and California’s Adam Schiff, of the Intelligence Committee. “At that September meeting and at multiple gatherings of members and their staffs over the subsequent weeks and months, an initial strategy — and a division of labor — began to take shape,” Jason Zengerle reported.

But those committee chairman’s to-do lists also include a number of terrifically important investigations with major policy implications that are not directly related to a possible impeachment inquiry.

And could any of them alone gather an audience and meet the need for public education like the Watergate Committee did?

Politico’s article today on the likelihood and timing of impeachment proceedings says Pelosi’s goal is: “Give Mueller space and time to finish his work before considering impeachment proceedings while satisfying the Democrats’ burning desire to aggressively investigate Trump in the meantime.”

A select committee could do that.

It could also satisfy the needs of those who are more eager.

“It becomes harder and harder to make the case that this president hasn’t committed impeachable offenses. However, that information still has to get out to the American people,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, one of 58 Democrats who voted to begin impeachment proceedings last year, told Politico. “You really stand to lose something if you try to move impeachment before you have everything on the table,” she said. “We don’t have everything on the table yet.”

In related impeachment news

Liberal and progressive lawyers continue to debate over methods and timing.

Bob Bauer and Quinta Jurecic, who last week argued that Trump’s evident criminal violations of campaign finance law constitute an impeachable offense, this week respond to pushback from those who say it’s not quite enough. They say lowering the bar would be a bad precedent:

Whether Congress treats the prosecution and investigation in question as material fit for examination in an impeachment inquiry will determine how, in the future, the norms governing initiation of the impeachment process are construed.

Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect, argues for a slow but determined approach. “[W]e need to let the process unfold with all deliberate speed. Public opinion is not there yet, but it will come. Conversely, given the grossly impeachable offenses of President Trump, it would be a dereliction of constitutional duty not to eventually impeach him.”

Democratic activist James Carroll writes in USA Today that there’s no need to wait for Mueller. “We don’t need proof of Russia collusion to hold Trump accountable for refusing to call Russia to account for its cyberattacks during the 2016 election and since then and his role in the illegal payment of hush money to two women in order to influence the 2016 election,” Carroll writes. He calls for “a thorough House impeachment inquiry (eventually including Mueller’s findings), which will play nonstop for months on national television.”

Michael Conway, a counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings, writes that Trump’s hush money payments “sabotaged an informed electorate” and are “part of a background mosaic of lawlessness by Trump” – but that more needs to emerge to make the case for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“Russian collusion, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the false testimony of Trump associates (proven and possibly yet to be proven) to FBI agents and congressional committees, Trump’s dangling of pardons and his public lies will be at the heart of any impeachment inquiry. The criminal campaign finance violations will simply corroborate the corrupt intent behind it all,” he writes.

Meanwhile, two New York Times graphics editors neatly make an overwhelming case that Trump is guilty of multiple violations of the Constitution through his acceptance of payments from foreign and domestic governments. Some word editor, presumably, added an entirely unnecessary question mark to the headline.

See the White House Watch Impeachment Watch archive.

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