More Serious Than Watergate

I understand the line Rep. Adam Schiff is trying to walk in his New York Times editorial this morning. The impeachment of a president is a weighty prospect and when necessary it requires the greatest possible consensus. If it is seen as politically motivated or an attempt to nullify an election, it not only can be harmful to the country but it might even prevent the president’s party from doing what the facts morally obligate them to do. For these reasons, the Democrats would be wise to treat any possible impeachment as hypothetical rather than as a campaign promise. They should stand ready to do what is necessary, but they should also await a full airing of the facts before they prejudge the remedies. And, to be frank, there’s some political self-interest involved in the Democrats taking a wait-and-see position, since the Republicans are attempting to make a rush-to-judgment or election-nullification case to their base as a method of motivating them to turnout in the midterms.

Schiff is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and he is well aware of how much incriminating evidence has already been gathered on the president, his associates, and his campaign. Nonetheless, he wisely counsels caution and patience for reasons that span everything from an interest in national unity to simple pragmatism to partisan electoral strategy.

But things are perhaps more difficult that this. If you look at the Articles of Impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee adopted on July 27, 1974, you’ll notice that there is nothing in there to suggest that either of the presidential campaign victories that Nixon enjoyed were illegitimate.

In part, this was because Congress did not yet have the evidence to prove that Nixon had actively worked to scuttle peace talks in Vietnam during the 1968 campaign. In part, it was because his 1972 victory had been so decisive that no one could plausibly argue that anything underhanded that Nixon did during that campaign was necessary for his victory.

At the time, the reasons for removing Nixon from office had nothing to do with the integrity of his elections or whether or not he should have ever assumed the presidency in the first place. Trump’s case is different.

While the third-rate burglary of the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee did not produce damaging information that harmed George McGovern’s prospects of victory, the Russians’ electronic burglary of the Democratic National Committee was almost definitely a decisive factor in the 2016 election. With an election so close that it was decided by a narrow margin of votes in three states, you can point to a long list of things that were consequential enough to have changed the outcome. Some of those things can be laid right on the door of Hillary Clinton and her strategists, like the decision not to campaign at all in Wisconsin. But absent the leaks from the Russians, it’s highly doubtful that Donald Trump would have won.

At the beginning of this investigation, it was a strictly a matter of counterintelligence. On the routine level, we needed to know if members of Trump’s campaign were putting themselves in a position to be blackmailed. On a more nefarious level, we needed to know if people around Trump were making promises to the Russians in return for assistance with the campaign. Some of the information that was collected was alarming enough to turn a counterintelligence investigation into a criminal investigation, meriting FISA warrants and other surveillance.

When Trump unexpectedly won, there were two immediate problems. One was that it looked probable that his incoming national security adviser was compromised by the Russians, at best, and actively working as their agent at worst. There was also extremely concerning information on former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. And the intelligence community had evidence that members of Trump’s campaign, including some of his foreign policy advisers, had been in direct contact with Russian intelligence and had been tipped off about the DNC hacks. We were going to swear in a president who could be exposed by the Russians at any time and who had a long list of subordinates who were subject to blackmail.

That created one form of national security risk and illegitimacy. The other one was the legitimacy of the election itself. There was evidence that the Russians had hacked into election databases. It did not appear that they had gained the ability to change the actual tallies of votes, but that needed to be thoroughly investigated. But what was more certain is that they had engaged in wide-ranging influence campaign that, given the closeness of the election, had probably cost Hillary Clinton a victory.

This is why this controversy is more serious than Watergate. It’s more comparable to Nixon’s decision to tell the South Vietnamese to delay making a peace deal with the North Vietnamese before the 1968 election. President Lyndon Johnson called Nixon’s move “treason,” and it certainly wound up costing a lot of people, including Americans, their lives. Concern about his treachery being exposed probably played no small part in Nixon’s later criminal activities once in office. He had definitely handed the South Vietnamese government some leverage against him, although they were too dependent on America to seriously contemplate using it. Russia doesn’t have the same limitations, and their leverage against the president is ongoing and will be perpetual until he is removed from office.

If people had known what Nixon had done to assure himself victory in 1968, they would have considered it grounds for removal far more compelling than anything that was contained in his actual articles of impeachment. And that’s precisely because it implicated the legitimacy of his election. Once a president is legitimately elected, there’s always an argument that the people should take the responsibility for punishing his bad behavior by voting him out of office. That’s certainly preferable to Congress having to take on that responsibility.

In the case where the election was illegitimate, however, we have to consider the importance of future deterrence. We don’t want candidates for office thinking they can become president by enlisting a foreign power to commit burglaries against their political opponents. We also can’t leave the application of justice to the voters. If the voters reelect a criminal president, then not only do the crimes go unpunished but crime is rewarded and entrenched.

As a practical and political matter, the Democrats should heed Schiff’s advice and not go around campaigning on the promise to remove Trump from office. And they should absolutely wait to hear the entire case against him before prejudging how they’d vote on hypothetical articles of impeachment. There’s good reason not to act like removal is the result they wanted all along or that they’re trying to nullify the 2016 election.

But, in reality, we have a president who is compromised by the Russians and who is only president because of their illegal assistance. Even if he were otherwise competent, these factors would make his removal justified and urgent. The way to get consensus on this is not to argue the case, as I have been doing. Consensus will come, to the degree that it will ever come, from the presentation of the evidence.

For people who have been following this closely, there is no doubt that the evidence will be shocking and compelling. And that’s why no one needs to make any promises or commitments. When the time comes for elected Democrats to make the case, we will all know it. In the meantime, the rest of us can and should say what we want.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.