A Republican Watergate veteran's perspective on a Trump impeachment

As House Democrats debate whether, how, how quickly and how broadly to bring impeachment charges against President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE, it helps to consult a uniquely qualified observer: Bill Cohen.

He served almost a quarter century as a Republican congressman and senator from Maine, and then as President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris lead Trump in Georgia: Poll Keep your eye on essential facts in the unfolding impeachment circus MORE's Defense Secretary. He now is one of Washington's wise men. The first bookend was in 1974 when, as a freshman House member, he played a crucial role in the Judiciary Committee's deliberations on impeaching Richard Nixon — still, for all the differences, the best model for the Trump inquiry.

As a reporter covering the House and spending a good deal of time at the Judiciary Committee in 1974, I have a special appreciation of Cohen's insights and the differences between then and now.

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In an interview, Cohen — a strong proponent of impeachment — says the House should soon pass a formal inquiry as it did in 1974; it's not required, but he notes it offers more legitimacy and takes away opponents’ talking points.

The House then should complete any process before the 2020 election year, but Cohen cautions this has to be a thorough and credibly comprehensive effort: "They should cancel all vacations, if necessary, between now and the rest of the year. They need to call a number of witnesses to elicit more information and determine if those that refuse to appear are part of any cover-up."

It's critically important, the former Maine lawmaker notes, "to build a public case, to build a record." After Trump's call to shake down the Ukrainian President to investigate Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE, a potential rival for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, public opinion has shifted to more favorably view impeachment; that support, however, remains very soft.

That was true in early 1974 too, Cohen recalls. And a number of Republicans, including Mississippi's Trent Lott, who went on to become Senate Majority Leader, were as intransigently opposed to impeaching Nixon as Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGraham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing House Republicans call impeachment hearing 'boring,' dismiss Taylor testimony as hearsay MORE and Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesOvernight Defense: Trump hosts Erdoğan at White House | Says Turkish leader has 'great relationship with the Kurds' | Highlights from first public impeachment hearing GOP zeroes in on alleged Ukraine meddling during impeachment testimony The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats open televised impeachment hearings MORE are in the tank for Trump today.

The Ukrainian scandal is the easiest for the public and politicians to grasp and will be the centerpiece of any impeachment bill. The former House Judiciary Committee member argues there should be several articles dealing with abuse of power and obstruction of justice and should include a multitude of impeachable offenses.

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The current House Judiciary Committee has botched this task, but Cohen is impressed with House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGraham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial Democrats seize on new evidence in first public impeachment hearing MORE — despite the California Democrat's faux pas in engaging in hyperbole at an initial forum last month: "Schiff is a gifted lawyer,” said Cohen. “If this gets to the Senate, you want him to be the chief prosecutor."

I agree, with a caveat: Schiff should stay off cable television for now; he has a much more serious responsibility; others can air the public case with the talking heads.

Any of us who covered the historic 1974 impeachment see significant differences. First, a year before, the Sam Ervin-led Senate Watergate Committee had established a record, including the existence of White House tapes and the devastating testimony of former Nixon counsel John Dean. In a narrower sense, the Mueller report laid out demonstrably impeachable offenses — but it was less conclusive.

Other than the rough transcript the White House released of the call to the Ukrainian leader, this time there are no tapes — yet.

Another difference is that social media and cable television generate a more polarized politics, one reason the partisan lines are drawn more sharply today.

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On the other hand, impeachment was a more alien concept going into 1974; there had been no such move against a president in over a century. Conceptually, it's less unthinkable today. During Watergate even some critics acknowledged some of Nixon's governing skills — and worried over that loss. There is no such concern today.

There are those who argue why go through this ordeal if a conviction in the Republican Senate is out of the question? That's repeating the mistakes made in the flawed impeachment against Bill Clinton. (Nixon resigned before facing certain defeat in both houses.)

Cohen rejects the argument:

"This is presidential conduct you want to be ashamed of. He is corrupting institutions, politicizing the military, and acts like he is the law. If that is acceptable, we really don't have a Republic as we've known it any more."

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.