Opinion | What Will It Take for Democrats to Unite Behind Impeaching Trump?

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Opinion | What Will It Take for Democrats to Unite Behind Impeaching Trump?

Many Democrats are arguing harshly that the House is wasting an opportunity to open an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. Their point of support: Watergate-era House Democrats. In their telling, House Democrats were always united in support of impeaching President Richard Nixon.

But that isn’t true. I was there, and in fact initially they were as divided in their approach to addressing President Nixon’s conduct as House Democrats are today about starting an impeachment inquiry.

Liberal Democrat House members in 1973-74 pressed for an impeachment inquiry of President Nixon, but they met resistance from Democrat leadership. In April 1974, a New York Times article identified “perhaps seven impeachment zealots” on the House Judiciary Committee — all Democrats — who would “like very much to indict the president for high crimes and misdemeanors.” But, as the report added, the “surprising thing” about that committee was that it did not “contain more pro-impeachment zealots” — 18 of the 21 committee Democrats had liberal voting records.

There were actually two impeachment resolutions before the committee’s investigation that ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation. First, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, one of the seven “zealots,” had co-sponsored a quixotic resolution to impeach President Nixon even before the Watergate break-in of June 1972. Mr. Conyers’s resolution was referred to the Judiciary Committee and died there.

After the Watergate cover-up began unraveling in mid-1973, a cadre of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee started pressing for President Nixon’s impeachment. Representative Robert Drinan of Massachusetts, another Judiciary Committee member, filed an impeachment resolution on July 31, 1973, as televised hearings before a Senate committee exposed the Watergate cover-up.

It focused on President Nixon’s decision to launch a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Tip O’Neill, a House Democratic leader who became speaker, made sure that the chamber would not act on Mr. Drinan’s resolution at that time. “Morally, Drinan had a good case,” Mr. O’Neill wrote in his memoir, “Man of the House.” “But politically, he damn near blew it. For if Drinan’s resolution had come up for a vote at the time he filed it, it would have been overwhelmingly defeated — by something like 400 to 20.”

Mr. O’Neill’s leadership team feared that the Republicans would call Mr. Drinan’s resolution for a vote to resoundingly defeat it and, thereby, discredit any impeachment effort. They never did.

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi does today, Mr. O’Neill rebuffed the early impeachment demands of his members. In his memoir, Mr. O’Neill quotes Representative Thaddeus Dulski of New York in the summer of 1973: “I’m a loyal Democrat, but I couldn’t vote to impeach any president … It would be a sacrilege.”

But circumstances changed with the late-October “Saturday Night Massacre”: When President Nixon fired the special prosecutor Archibald Cox, the action all but forced House leadership to give a green light to an impeachment inquiry.

Within days, Representative Jerome Waldie of California, another Judiciary Committee member, filed articles of impeachment.

Yet even then, the congressional vote to formally authorize the Judiciary Committee to investigate was delayed until February. House Democrats were keenly aware that President Nixon had won re-election in a 49-state landslide in 1972. So for several months after the resolutions were signed, moderate and conservative Democrats were still noncommittal, if not downright reluctant, to put impeachment to a vote.

That reluctance was also displayed in May after President Nixon defied the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena for White House tapes. The committee voted 32-5 to reject a motion by Representative Jack Brooks of Texas for the House to hold the president in contempt.

By early summer, reluctance had faded. Representative James Mann of South Carolina represented a congressional district where President Nixon had recently won 80 percent. When Mr. Mann became convinced that the president warranted impeachment, he became an important link to conservative Democrats and even some Republicans.

Representative Donald Edwards of California said Mr. Mann had a relationship with those members that Mr. Drinan and Mr. Conyers never could. “He can go to them and say: ‘I have the same problem as you in my district. I can support this. So can you’,” Mr. Edwards said at the time.

Today these tensions and ambiguities sound familiar. So far, over 80 House members — including one Republican, now turned independent — have publicly supported an impeachment inquiry.

But as Mr. O’Neill initially did, Ms. Pelosi is treating impeachment as a “third rail,” too dangerous to touch. She has been adamant in rejecting an impeachment inquiry both publicly and in her caucus.

If the detailed evidence in the Mueller report about obstruction of justice did not sway Ms. Pelosi, what will? Without new blockbuster events like a Saturday Night Massacre or the revelation of President Nixon’s incriminating White House tapes, Ms. Pelosi is unlikely to budge with 2020 Election Day approaching.

But Democrats favoring an impeachment inquiry can hold to the fact that House Democrats in 1974 ultimately united. Every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee voted for two articles of impeachment citing obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Six Republicans supported the first charge, and seven found abuse of power.

Nineteen of 21 Democrats approved Article III, along with two Republicans, based upon President Nixon’s defiance of the committee’s subpoenas. Representative Mann was one of two Democrats opposing it.

Party unity coalesced only after House leadership authorized Peter Rodino of New Jersey, the Judiciary Committee chairman, to conduct a thorough, deliberate, six-month impeachment investigation.

Still, Democratic unity today remains unlikely — by all appearances, Ms. Pelosi has no intention of letting that process begin. It will take unforeseen events, or a pro-impeachment surge in public opinion, to change the current dynamic.

Michael Conway served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon.

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