As impeachment goes public, forget 'conventional wisdom'

The conventional wisdom is the House will impeach Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE and then the Senate will quickly vote against convicting him.

There are two critical caveats. One, static analysis is dicey; more incriminating information and testimony rolls out daily and will keep rolling. It's coming from top career public officials — the "deep state" to Trump — and some administration insiders have to be questioning the risks of staying loyal to a president who disdains that quality himself.

The other is the best model: the Richard Nixon impeachment in the summer of 1974. It was only in the final weeks, even days, that a clear consensus jelled.


Public and political attitudes will be shaped by how the deliberations come across, starting with public House Intelligence Committee hearings next week. The focus will be on Trump pressuring Ukraine to dish out dirt on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE, and on obstructing the congressional investigation.

Intelligence committee chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Trump pardons Flynn | Lawmakers lash out at decision | Pentagon nixes Thanksgiving dining hall meals due to COVID-19 Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Trump pardons Michael Flynn MORE is developing a compelling case. There now are top level officials — including Trump appointees — who say he demanded a quid pro quo with the Ukrainians: no military assistance unless they sought to smear Joe Biden. There is a pattern of abuse.

A White House cover-up also seems likely. The transcript of a shakedown call Trump made to the Ukrainian president in July was moved to a highly classified server, and the president appeared to direct subordinates to deceive about the incident.

The problem for the Democrats is less one of substance than one of politics — when it's handed over next month to the inept Judiciary Committee to frame any bills of impeachment.

House Democratic leaders are pressuring that panel and its chairman, New York's Jerry NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE, who faces a left-wing primary opponent, to cede much of the questioning of witnesses to a trained counsel. Containing Congressional egos and demagoguery, especially when in the limelight, is difficult.


Republicans face even bigger challenges. Their strategy is to create chaos to divert attention from the central charges. A point man will be right-wing Ohio Republican Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanCheney, top GOP lawmakers ask Trump campaign for proof of election fraud New RSC chairman sees 'Trumpism' as future Sunday shows preview: Biden team gears up for transition, Trump legal battles continue and pandemic rages on MORE, a relentless and reckless attack dog.

Echoing Trump, House Republicans want to make the whole thing a partisan circus. Other strategies already have failed.

Republicans initially charged that the procedures and protections afforded to the minority, and the White House, were unfair and unprecedented. In reality, they are the same rules and procedures enacted by Republicans when they were in the majority and the same protections afforded to Presidents Nixon and Clinton.

A continuing ploy is to attack and seek to out the anonymous government whistle-blower who initially raised concerns about Trump's call to Ukrainians based on reports he or she had seen. That would be like in 1974 demanding the identity of “Deep Throat,” the source for the initial Washington Post Watergate reporting before impeachment was possible.

Now — as then — the whistle-blower is irrelevant, as high-level officials with direct knowledge of what happened have come forth and incriminated the president.


The Trump defenders initially concurred with the president that there was no quid pro quo on assistance to Ukraine in return for digging up dirt on Biden and his son, who was on a Ukrainian energy company board. But testimony has proven there was an irrefutable connection.

Congressional Trumpites now say quid pro quos aren't out of the ordinary — but they can't cite examples involving a political opponent.

While Democrats are expected to largely steer clear of the charges against Trump contained in the special prosecutor's investigation of Russian interference in the last election and some of his financial transactions, there almost certainly will be a charge of obstruction of justice or impeding the Congressional inquiry. Precedent is on their side.

In the 1998 impeachment of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle Dow breaks 30,000 for first time as Biden transition ramps up Trump's remaking of the judicial system MORE, based on lying about a sexual relationship, the Republicans charged he obstructed justice "in an effort to delay, impede, cover up, and conceal the existence of evidence." A quarter of a century earlier, a bipartisan Judiciary Committee found Nixon guilty of similar obstruction and of failure "to produce papers  and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas " issued by congress.

There already is a basis to try to charge Trump with obstruction, and it will be surprising if more inside accounts don't emerge in the weeks ahead.

I remember — more vividly than ever — those July days during the Nixon impeachment (I was covering the House for the Wall Street Journal). Key members of the Judiciary Committee — Democrats and Republicans — were torn, just days out.

Then they met and carefully examined the whole picture — not just the pieces — and concluded impeachment was unavoidable.

The best bet is that Donald Trump will probably be president in March. But these next few months promise to be the most momentous and dramatic since those historic days of the summer of 1974.

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.