On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that spelled the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. In a landmark ruling, the court ordered Nixon to release secret Oval Office tape recordings that proved he had been part of the Watergate cover-up. With irrefutable evidence of his guilt out in the open, Nixon’s support among Republicans in Congress collapsed, and he resigned on August 9 rather than face impeachment.
That court ruling came more than two years after the June 1972 Democratic National Committee Headquarters break-in that triggered the scandal. Today, people remember Watergate as a scandal that quickly sank Nixon, but in reality, it took a long time to unspool.
In fact, Watergate didn’t really take off as a scandal that seriously threatened Nixon’s presidency until March 1973, nearly a year after the break-in. That was when James McCord, one of the Watergate burglars, wrote a private letter to the judge handling the burglars’ criminal case revealing that he and his co-defendants had been under political pressure to plead guilty and remain silent as part of the cover-up. The Senate Watergate Committee hearings began two months later, and in June 1973, former White House counsel John Dean captivated the nation when he testified that he had told Nixon the Watergate cover-up was a “cancer on the presidency.”
The one-two punch of McCord’s letter and Dean’s testimony finally transformed Watergate into an all-consuming national crisis. The fundamental lesson? Regicide takes time. Unfortunately, this revelation was lost on the Democrats who have been leading the rushed impeachment of Donald Trump.
House Democrats went into the impeachment process last year with a strong hand. Thanks to an anonymous whistleblower and other courageous government officials who were willing to tell the truth, there was rock solid evidence that Trump had abused his presidential power in the Ukraine case.
Immediately after special counsel Robert Mueller declined to prosecute him for colluding with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, Trump sought to pressure Ukraine to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 presidential election. Trump withheld badly needed aid from Ukraine in a bid to force newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to announce a corruption investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who had been on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. It didn’t matter to Trump that there was no evidence of corruption by Joe Biden or his son; he wanted Zelensky to announce an investigation into false charges that would hurt Biden’s candidacy.
Trump’s efforts to embroil Ukraine in his corrupt election scheme outraged the career government officials who knew about it, and many of them were willing to testify before the House.
But Trump quickly sought to stonewall the House investigation, and, following his lead, many of the political appointees around him also refused to testify. The White House issued lie after lie about the Ukraine case, while smearing the career officials who had testified under oath. Trump and his enablers tried to discredit the investigation by claiming it was the product of a vengeful “deep state.”
By December, House Democrats had built a case based on the testimony of several career officials, but they had reached an impasse with the White House as top political appointees still refused to cooperate.
So House Democrats had a choice: Take more time to investigate or move straight to an impeachment vote.
Forcing the testimony of the uncooperative Trump administration officials might have required House Democrats to take the bold step of holding Cabinet-level officials in contempt for ignoring congressional requests and subpoenas. The House Democrats could then have gone to federal court to enforce their actions.
House Democrats could also have sent a delegation to Ukraine to try to gather facts and negotiate for the testimony of Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders. Or they could have slowed down in order to hire dozens of additional congressional investigators, who could have scoured Washington looking for more of the Trump-Ukraine story.
To stoke public interest, House Democrats might have continued to hold public hearings on the Ukraine scandal while waiting for their investigative efforts and legal challenges to bear fruit, much as the Senate Watergate Committee hearings did in 1973. Those hearings attracted celebrities like John Lennon and Yoko Ono and became appointment television for millions of Americans.
Instead, House Democrats decided to move fast with the Trump impeachment proceedings. They were too impatient to endure the delays that would result from a deeper investigation.
They went straight to an impeachment vote in December, less than five months after the July 25, 2019, phone call between Trump and Zelensky that triggered the scandal. If the Senate votes to acquit Trump on Wednesday, as expected, he will have nine full months before the 2020 election to boast about having been cleared.
The Democrats argued, correctly, that the evidence of Trump’s corrupt abuse of power was already so clear and convincing that there was no reason to wait, and that Trump’s stonewalling could just be added to the articles of impeachment as obstruction. But impeachment is a political process more than a legal one, and House Democrats needed to win over the country. In today’s news environment, the only way to change distracted minds is to keep hitting the same notes over and over until they sink in.
A lengthy congressional investigation of Trump’s efforts to abuse his power by trying to get a foreign government to help him destroy a political rival could have dominated the headlines throughout 2020. Trump’s criminal conduct would have been front and center throughout the presidential campaign.
What’s more, legal battles with Trump aides over their refusal to testify could have kept the pressure on those officials. Their resolve might eventually have weakened in the face of mounting legal bills and the threat of jail time for contempt of Congress or contempt of court.
Instead, the Democrats leading the impeachment process now find themselves in the strange position of begging for information from an unpublished and largely unseen book by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who has not testified in the impeachment despite saying that he would if he were subpoenaed.
A fundamental question has to be asked about the Democratic strategy that brought us to this point so quickly and so early in the 2020 election campaign: Why didn’t Democrats move more slowly and purposefully?
The answer is that the Democrats lacked the courage of their convictions. Because of the Republican control of the Senate, they didn’t believe they could win the impeachment battle. And without the prospect of certain victory, they weren’t willing to take the aggressive measures necessary to conduct a thorough investigation.
Democrats didn’t want Trump’s impeachment to linger into the middle of the 2020 presidential campaign because they feared it would spark a backlash among voters and help Trump politically. Meanwhile, the leading Democratic presidential candidates all acted as if they were annoyed by the impeachment battle, as if it were just a distraction from the campaign.
Democratic leaders failed to see that investigating Trump throughout the election would hurt him. They chose shortcuts and half measures over pushing hard for more testimony and answers.
President Gerald Ford called Watergate a “long national nightmare.” Today’s Democrats were unwilling to do the nightmarish things required when seeking to oust a president from office.