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Former Washington lawmakers apply lessons from Clinton impeachment to Trump

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 10, 2019

Copy of the Articles of Impeachment, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 in Washington. House Democrats announced they are pushing ahead with two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – charging he corrupted the U.S. election process and endangered national security in his dealings with Ukraine. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Copy of the Articles of Impeachment, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 in Washington. House Democrats announced they are pushing ahead with two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – charging he corrupted the U.S. election process and endangered national security in his dealings with Ukraine. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

While casting his votes for the articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton, former Rep. George Nethercutt was emotional, his mind filtering through thoughtful letters he’d received from constituents.

“I realized the seriousness of it and the effect that it might have on the country,” said Nethercutt. “I thought about the people who didn’t want me to vote for impeachment. … I read every single one of them, I read every one.”

House Democrats on Wednesday announced two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The vote will go to the House Judiciary Committee, with a timeline for a vote in the full House before Christmas.

Trump responded by tweeting, “To Impeach a President who has proven through results, including producing perhaps the strongest economy in our country’s history, to have one of the most successful presidencies ever, and most importantly, who has done NOTHING wrong, is sheer Political Madness! #2020Election.”

Nethercutt said the Trump impeachment feels more polarized than in the case of Clinton.

“Now, if you and I disagree, I don’t like you anymore, and you don’t like me, as opposed to we just disagree,” Nethercutt said. “I think President Trump has some culpability in this. I think he’s called out his opponents, he won’t say he’s sorry for anything, there’s no guilt feelings at all, and I think that’s bad for a politician.”

Nethercutt, however, does not believe the president committed an impeachable offense. He suggested Congress consider the less severe option of a censure. Though many censures have been proposed throughout the years – including two against Trump originating in the House – the last successful censure against a sitting president was the case of Andrew Jackson in 1834, though Congress expunged the censure in 1837.

“I think impeachment will divide the country, and it may be divided anyway irreparably, but I think there’s a chance if we censure the president rather than impeach the president,” Nethercutt said.

In the case of the Clinton impeachment, the activist group MoveOn.org formed when it presented a petition urging the Republican-controlled Senate to drop the impeachment and censure the president instead.

For Nethercutt, a major distinction between the Trump and Clinton impeachment is that he described the latter as a partially bipartisan effort, a characterization former Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican, disagreed with.

“When you were there, that was pretty much exclusively a Republican venture,” said Gorton, who voted not guilty on the perjury charge against Clinton, but guilty on the charge of obstruction of justice. “While there was some scattering of support in the House, there wasn’t a single Democrat in the Senate who voted guilty on either count.”

This lack of bipartisan involvement makes the Trump impeachment appear to be a political ploy, a calculation by the Democrats that Senate Republicans voting against conviction will hurt them in the next election, said Gorton, who served as senator from Washington from 1981-1987 and 1989-2001.

“That’s a dubious proposition,” Gorton said. “It’s possible, but it’s also possible that their reaction would be exactly the other way. But the real problem is if they were serious about removing President Trump, they had to make it bipartisan.”

Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said there has been a campaign to paint the impeachment proceedings as politically motivated, but impeachment is an important aspect of the political process because the framers believed it was a necessary component of checks and balances.

Clayton said the framers envisioned impeachment would provide a check for things like seeking interference by a foreign government in elections, using the power and privileges of the presidency for personal benefit, or obstructing justice.

“These are precisely the types of behaviors that the framers wanted the impeachment power to guard against,” Clayton said.

Clayton said the role of the four constitutional experts who testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 4 was to clearly define how the Constitution would interpret these offenses.

“Of course, this is what’s being debated right now,” Clayton said. “This is precisely why they had those four law professors last week testify.”

Clayton said the purpose of the lawyers was to explicate the constitutional understanding of high crimes and misdemeanors.

When the Senate decides whether to convict, members must ask themselves two questions, Gorton said. The first is whether the president is guilty of the charge.

“That is not sufficient to vote guilty, because the only sanction is losing the office, so you also have to decide that it was important enough to reverse a presidential election,” Gorton said “That’s a different and tougher consideration.”

Gorton is in the unique position of having involvement in two impeachments. In the case of the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, he was Washington’s attorney general and called for Nixon’s resignation. Though Nixon ultimately resigned, Gorton said Nixon was the only case of a president who would have been convicted.

In the case of the Trump impeachment, Gorton has not decided because he said the matter requires further study.

Blaine Garvin, Gonzaga University history professor, said the framers of the Constitution were vague about impeachable offenses. The Constitution’s language specifies “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” are impeachable offenses.

Garvin said Trump’s actions would fall under the purview of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but what qualifies as a high crime or misdemeanor was never spelled out and is ultimately interpreted by the House, which draws up the articles of impeachment.

“Years and years ago when he was in the House of Representatives, former President (Gerald) Ford made a famous pronouncement about this,” Garvin said. “He said high crimes and misdemeanors is whatever the House of Representatives says it is.”

One of the most outspoken witnesses during the trial was United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Sondland testified that when the president told him to engage with Ukraine alongside Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, Sondland did not know the move was improper.

“I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the President’s 2020 reelection campaign,” Sondland said in his opening statement.

Spokane native and Princeton University Diplomat in Residence Ryan Crocker said the actions of Sondland would have been apparent to him had he been a career diplomat, as opposed to a private citizen appointed to the role. One of the essential qualities of a member of the foreign service community is that they must remain nonpartisan, and this was clearly engaging in partisan activity.

“It’s entirely plausible that he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary because he doesn’t know what ordinary is,” Crocker said. “That is a weakness in our system. We make people ambassadors with no prior background in diplomacy, because for a career diplomat it was pretty clear from the outset that using the private lawyer of the president on a complex foreign policy issue is most definitely out of the ordinary.”

During his opening statement, Sondland said he was a lifelong Republican.

“Simply put, I am not here to push an agenda,” Sondland said. “I am here to tell the truth.”

Crocker said he would never make a judgment about whether Trump committed impeachable offenses because he holds a nonpartisan position.

“This position of being a nonpartisan figure is crucial,” Crocker said. “I was an ambassador six times, and I served three times for Republican administrations and three times with Democratic administrations. That is an article of faith among us, so to be involved in a process that clearly is driven by domestic policy is a place no foreign service officer ever wants to be.”

With that said, he said that foreign service community is disturbed by the treatment of its members in this case, particularly the treatment of Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor and former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

“Probably the most striking, certainly the most striking negative thing would be the way that some of these individuals led by Rudy Giuliani smeared our extremely able ambassador in the Ukraine and that the Secretary of State declined to support her in our service and in our traditions,” Crocker said.

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