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Trump takes Nixon’s approach

Democrats should take yet another lesson from Watergate

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08th-May-2019       
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James Reston Jr. :
On July 30, 1974, nine days before President Richard Nixon resigned, the House Judiciary Committee added a third article to its impeachment charges against the President. The first two had dealt with obstruction of justice and abuse of power; Article III charged that Nixon had failed to comply with eight congressional subpoenas related to the Watergate investigation.
Now, with President Trump and William Barr, his attorney general, refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations, the Democrats in the House should take yet another lesson from Watergate. They are reportedly already preparing impeachment articles on obstruction of justice; they should add failure to comply with Congress to the list.
The subpoenas against Nixon demanded 147 unedited tape recordings of Presidential conversations; a list of meetings and telephone conversations for five specific, suspicious periods between 1971 and 1973; and copies of any handwritten Presidential notes pertaining to the Watergate charges.
In response, Nixon asserted that the Judiciary Committee already had the "full story of Watergate," and did not need to have further materials. He produced none of the 147 unedited transcripts that had been requested. (That bundle of withheld tapes included the critical June 23 tape that, when it was finally released, ultimately drove the President from office, and that Nixon had listened to many weeks earlier.)
He did hand over 33 transcripts of edited conversations that had not been requested by the committee, along with edited notes from John Ehrlichman, one of his advisers, that had already been given to the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. No handwritten presidential notes were produced.
In response, the committee approved Article III. It charged that the President "has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee." Instead, it read, Nixon had substituted his own views as to what materials were necessary for the committee to render its judgment, and had interposed the powers of the presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives. His refusal to comply interfered with the committee's ability to fulfil its constitutional duties and was, therefore, subversive of constitutional government.
President Trump has taken a similar approach to Nixon's, declaring that the Mueller report should mean the end of any related congressional investigations, and that he would defy any subpoena that came from them. In response, congressional leaders have said they would take the matter to court.
That's a good thing to do - to have the courts reaffirm what is already clear in the law - and Congress will probably win. But a court case could take months to conclude, playing into the President's apparent strategy of running out the clock.
Yet Mr. Trump's defiance can, in and of itself, form the basis for an additional impeachment article - a fact that Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, recognized on Thursday. "Ignoring subpoenas of Congress, not honoring subpoenas of Congress - that was Article III of the Nixon impeachment," she said.
President Trump's assertion that there is nothing left to learn from congressional hearings - which, unlike the Mueller investigation, would be televised - may be correct. But that is beside the point; it is up to Congress, not him, to decide.
He also clearly fears the dramatic spectacle that such hearings would surely provide. Once again the Nixon model applies. Who can forget the scenes of John Dean, Nixon's former White House counsel, testifying about the "cancer on the presidency" and hush money payments to the Watergate burglars?
Nor can students of Watergate forget the power of the televised hearings of the House Judiciary Committee during the summer of 1974. Far from being politically divisive, they proved a dignified and appropriate response to egregious presidential misconduct - enough to persuade seven out of the committee's 17 Republicans to vote in favour of at least one of the articles of impeachment (Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, the father of the current Governor of Maryland, was the only Republican to vote for all three impeachment articles).
If the present moment has yet to offer any similar profiles in courage, that does not mean we will never see dramatic conversions. This early in our current process, it is a mistake to presume that no Republican lawmaker, House or Senate, will ever have a crisis of conscience and vote against Mr. Trump. And it is even a bigger mistake to let that presumption influence whether an impeachment process should be initiated or not.
If nothing else, televised hearings would demonstrate that Mr. Trump not only lacks respect for the rule of law, but for Congress and the separation of powers - a fact that, in and of itself, is an impeachable offense.

(James Reston Jr. is the author, among other books, of "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews." He advised the British television host David Frost on his interviews with Mr. Nixon in 1977.)

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