Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET
Democrats are on track to impeach the president by the end of next week. After more than 14 hours of debate Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee approved impeachment articles against President Trump on Friday morning.
Trump has dubbed this “impeachment lite.” He calls it the “weakest” impeachment in history, and the president’s Republican defenders in Congress say that the case is narrow and that Trump committed no crime, and, therefore, should not be impeached.
So is this truly “impeachment lite”? To explore that question, we looked at some of the arguments being made — and back at the articles of impeachment against Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon to see what context they can offer. (Clinton was impeached and acquitted, and the House Judiciary Committee advanced articles out of its committee, but Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.)
Democrats believe they have made a compelling and simple case with their two articles of impeachment — that:
1. The president abused his power by soliciting foreign interference by pressuring an ally — Ukraine — to announce an investigation into a political rival — former Vice President Joe Biden, while withholding military aid and dangling a head-of-state meeting, thereby corrupting the integrity of U.S. elections. Free and fair elections are the linchpin that holds together a democracy, as Democrats have argued; and
2. That he has obstructed Congress, a coequal branch of government, by withholding documents and preventing witnesses from testifying, thereby impeding Congress’ investigatory power.
Republicans obviously disagree. They say Democrats are acting on a “personal vendetta” and have been looking to impeach Trump since he was first elected. It is true that some Democratic members had called for his impeachment long before this moment, but there was hardly a majority of the caucus before the Ukraine pressure campaign was brought into the light.
On the substance, Republicans argue that the president did not abuse his power because Ukraine was known to be a corrupt country and that there is no “direct evidence” of a “quid pro quo” or solicitation of a bribe from a foreign leader.
Democrats and multiple witnesses have plenty of counterpoints that have been litigated for weeks since the beginning of the public impeachment inquiry process.
Republicans, and those who do not support this impeachment, also say the president should not be charged with obstruction of Congress because Democrats in the House have not let the process fully play out by going through the courts and letting the third coequal branch decide.
“Weak” and “narrow”
On the one hand, Democrats gave Republicans a pretty big stick to whack them with by not including bribery or obstruction of justice. Arguably, nothing was more litigated in this public impeachment process than the idea of a “quid pro quo” or “bribery.”
Obstruction of justice seemed to be a late addition when the public impeachment process got to the Judiciary Committee. It related to the instances of potential obstruction laid out in the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections. At the end of the day, moderates were able to narrow the focus to keep impeachment trained on the Ukraine affair — and what they see as the president’s clear abuse of power. It was a compromise that the overwhelming number of Democrats agree on.
The elimination of those two items has allowed Republicans to say this is a watered-down impeachment. After all, one of the two articles of impeachment that were approved by the full House during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment centered on obstruction of justice.
But, it should be noted, that both Clinton’s and Nixon’s impeachment articles were also narrowly focused. Here’s how Politifact put it:
“That’s similar to the way the Watergate-era Judiciary Committee narrowed its focus, considering but rejecting a proposed article on the bombing of Cambodia and another on emoluments received at Nixon’s properties and allegations of tax evasion. The two articles against Clinton that passed the House were focused on Clinton’s behavior in response to the sexual harassment lawsuits against him.”
It’s true that no explicit crime is laid out as an article of impeachment. Bribery was considered to be paired with abuse of power, but, in the end, as noted above, Democrats did not include it.
But there are two things to keep in mind:
1. There doesn’t have to be an explicit crime to impeach a president. As Democrats say in their House Judiciary Committee Majority Report:
“Some crimes, like jaywalking, are not impeachable. And some forms of misconduct may offend both the Constitution and the criminal law. Impeachment and criminality must therefore be assessed separately — even though the President’s commission of indictable crimes may further support a case for impeachment and removal.”
The report also says this about the Constitution’s framers:
“Because they could not anticipate and prohibit every threat a President might someday pose, the Framers adopted a standard sufficiently general and flexible to meet unknown future circumstances: ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ This standard was proposed by Mason and was meant, in his words, to capture all manner of ‘great and dangerous offenses’ against the Constitution.”
2. One could argue that while no crime is explicitly laid out, bribery or solicitation of a bribe is implied. The articles note twice that the president “conditioned” or was “conditioning” official acts for an announcement of investigations that would benefit him politically:
“President Trump also sought to pressure the Government of Ukraine to take these steps by conditioning official United States Government acts of significant value to Ukraine on its public announcement of the investigations. …
“With the same corrupt motives, President Trump — acting both directly and through his agents within and outside the United States Government — conditioned two official acts on the public announcements that he had requested.”
Remember, the Southern District of New York has already indicted Ukrainian associates of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, for “conspiring to violate straw and foreign donor bans.”
Former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified that she found out from Ukrainian officials that Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman were conspiring to oust her, she believed, because of her reputation against corruption in Ukraine.
Only two of the four articles of impeachment, I and III, against Clinton passed the full House. They had to do with his lying about his sexual relationship with a White House intern (“grand jury perjury“) and “obstruction of justice” that included his own lying and encouraging witnesses to do so. Articles II (“Perjury in the Civil Case”) and IV (“Abuse of Power”) were voted down.
There were a litany of potential crimes in Nixon’s case, known as Watergate, the name of the hotel complex where the burglary of Nixon’s Democratic opponents was carried out. While one witness alleged Nixon ordered the break-in, no hard evidence emerged to show that he did.
So, you don’t find in the three articles of impeachment against Nixon the words “burglary” or “conspiracy.” Instead, Article I was about obstruction of justice, a statutory crime; Article II dealt with Nixon “violating constitutional rights of citizens,” which includes potential crimes. For example: obtaining tax returns for purposes “not authorized by law”, electronic surveillance for no “lawful function of his office”, and potential misuse of campaign funds.
Article III, similar to Article II against Trump, dealt with obstruction of Congress. The language is strikingly similar in parts.
“In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, contrary to his oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has failed without lawful cause or at the same excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.”
“In his conduct of the office of President of the United States and in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed—Donald J. Trump has directed the unprecedented, categorical, and indiscriminate defiance of subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives pursuant to its ‘sole Power of Impeachment’.”
Republicans would argue that Clinton and Nixon committed statutory crimes that were outlined in the articles of impeachment, and therefore, their impeachment cases were more serious. Democrats believe Trump’s abuse of power is worse than Clinton’s.
“If it’s lying about sex,” longtime Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California said, “we could put Stormy Daniels’ case ahead of us.”
And, in some ways, they believe what Trump did was worse than Nixon because of a broader effort by Trump to stymie congressional oversight, as University of North Carolina Professor Michael Gerhardt argued during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
What’s more, Democrats disagree with the premise altogether. They argue that Trump could qualify to be charged with statutory crimes for his conduct based on what’s laid out in the articles of impeachment if a prosecutor wanted to take it up. That’s what California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a former prosecutor, argued in Thursday’s Judiciary Committee debate.
He laid out the case for “bribery” and “honest services fraud” charges against Trump, but, he noted, Congress’ job is to “protect the Constitution.”
“The president committed the highest crime against the Constitution by abusing his office,” Swalwell said, “cheating in an election, inviting foreign interference for a purely personal gain while jeopardizing our national security and the integrity of our elections.”