Congressional Republicans abandon Watergate precedents
In contrast to 1974, they are no longer impeachment's constitutional stalwarts
Once, not so long ago, congressional Republicans were impeachment’s constitutional stalwarts.
They stood up for the House of Representatives’ “sole power of impeachment,” a power granted in the Constitution, including the right to subpoena witnesses and evidence. Even when the president under investigation was a Republican. Even when the Republican political base threatened to turn against them.
But that was when the president was Richard Nixon, not Donald Trump.
Impeachment: 1974 vs. today
I wrote a book on the origins of Watergate, so I get asked a lot how Trump’s impeachment inquiry compares with Nixon’s.
Much remains the same, especially the partisan attacks. In 1974, as today, Republicans complained that the impeachment inquiry was too secret, too leaky and a violation of presidential rights. Both Team Nixon and Team Trump called their respective inquiries a “witch hunt,” a “lynch mob” and a “kangaroo court.”
There is one vital difference between then and now.
In 1974, when the president defied some impeachment subpoenas, many congressional Republicans said that that was, all by itself, an impeachable offense.
Yet in 2019, not a single House Republican voted for the second article of impeachment charging President Trump, who defied all impeachment subpoenas, with obstruction of Congress.
In 1974, many House Republicans defended the impeachment subpoena power at great political risk.
In January of that year, President Nixon told House Republicans, “I’m going to fight like hell” against impeachment.
Nixon’s first move was to invoke “executive privilege” to justify his refusal to turn over evidence, like his secretly recorded White House tapes, to congressional investigators.
A key House Republican, Edward Hutchinson of Michigan, firmly drew the line. The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Hutchinson said the doctrine of executive privilege “in an impeachment inquiry must fail.”
The committee’s Republican counsel, Albert Jenner, agreed “100,000 percent.” Jenner warned that if the president resisted a subpoena, “the committee could exercise its judgment and include the action in its consideration of whether articles of impeachment should be brought.”
In February 1974, the full House backed the committee up, granting it the power to subpoena anything and anyone up to the president himself. The vote was bipartisan, 410 in favor, with only 4 Republicans opposed.
In another bipartisan move, the committee voted 33 to 3 in April 1974 to subpoena Nixon’s tapes. The Senate Republican minority leader, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, warned that failure to comply would put the administration in “grave danger … with serious consequences possibly leading to impeachment.”
While today’s Republicans complain that the House didn’t leave it to the courts to decide whether the president has to comply with its subpoenas, in May 1974 only six of the committee’s 17 Republicans voted to punt the issue to the courts. As Jenner put it earlier that year, “No court in the land has the power to review House and Senate actions on impeachment.”
The committee voted 21 to 17 in July 1974 to impeach the president for subpoena defiance. Two Republicans voted with the Democratic majority. Nixon resigned in August before the full House had a chance to vote.