After months of dithering and delay, Democratic Party leadership finally grew a spine and launched an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump. Or perhaps more accurately, Trump gratuitously forced them to act by shaking down a dependent foreign leader to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and the discredited Russian propaganda line that Russian interference in the 2016 election was really a hoax concocted by the Democrats and Ukraine.
Having delayed so long, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff are now making the opposite mistake of rushing to judgment on impeachment. They are ignoring the precedent of the Watergate investigation, which showed that you cannot put a time limit on impeachment. If the current inquiry is allowed to proceed deliberately, much new evidence of presidential transgressions may well emerge.
The investigation of President Richard Nixon initially focused on his role in an alleged cover-up of a break-in by Republican campaign operatives at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington D.C.’s Watergate building. The break-in actually occurred on June 17, 1972. However, serious investigation began only after burglar James McCord on March 19, 1973, wrote a damning letter that Judge John Sirica, who was presiding over the burglary prosecutions, read in open court.
McCord charged that “there was political pressure applied to the [Watergate] defendants to plead guilty and remain silent;” that “perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to the very structure, orientation, and impact of the government’s case;” and that “others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified.”
The investigation of the Watergate scandal, first by a Senate Select Committee, and then by the House Judiciary Committee proceeded slowly and methodically. More than a year and four months passed between the McCord letter and the announced resignation of President Nixon on August 8, 1974. Had Congress rushed the investigations, they may have missed the shattering revelation in mid-July 1973 by White House aide Alexander Butterfield that, “Everything was taped” in the Oval Office “as long as the President was in attendance. There was not so much as a hint that something should not be taped.”
Had they rushed to judgment in 1973, legislators would also have missed the full range of Nixon’s transgressions that emerged only over many months of investigation. The manifold crimes of Watergate it came to be learned, included illegal campaign contributions, illegal wiretaps and break-ins, and efforts to rig elections. It was this widened scandal that first cracked the solid wall of Republicans who had been intent on defending the president.
After the scales fell from his eyes, moderate Republican Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts said in February 1974 that the Watergate scandal “is not just the stupid, unprofitable, break-in attempt … It is perjury. Obstruction of justice. The solicitation and acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions. It is a pattern of arrogance, illegality and lies which ought to shock the conscience of every Republican.”
Ultimately it was Republicans, not Democrats, who drove Nixon from office. Although Democrats held a majority on the House Judiciary Committee, in late July 1974, one-third of Republicans on Committee voted for at least one of the three articles of impeachment that charged Nixon with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt or Congress. About a week later, before the full House could vote on these articles, former Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and other Republican leaders warned the president of an unstoppable impeachment by the House and almost certain conviction in the Senate. The ever-pragmatic Nixon announced his resignation a day later.
Today’s Democrats would be well advised to follow the Watergate model and proceed with deliberate, not break-neck speed. Even after the public hearings by the House Intelligence Committee seemingly came to an end and a report appears imminent, the press has reported new evidence of presidential corruption. Freedom of Information Act Filings are resulting in the release of documents that the administration has denied Congress and persons who had direct contact with the president may ultimately testify. The House has yet to gain access to the president’s tax returns and other financial records.
Democrats have also clouded their judgment about the speed of the impeachment process with faulty political calculation. They apparently believe that a later trial, say in the spring of the election year, would handicap many of their presidential candidates, who, as senators, would have to sit as jurors in the trial.
Maybe so, but the real loser would be President Trump. In the midst of his reelection campaign, he would have to defend himself from serious charges of impeachable offenses at a closely watched trial, only the third such proceeding in the history of the United States.
Allan J. Lichtman (@AllanLichtman) is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C., and creator of the “The Keys to the White House,” which correctly predicted Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.