In 1974, the last time one of their own presidents faced impeachment, Republicans on Capitol Hill told Richard Nixon he lacked the votes in the Senate to beat the rap, and he resigned. Will their heirs today follow in their footsteps and so inform Donald Trump?
That is the key question as House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi sped up the impeachment process against him Thursday, and the House, by a nearly party-line 232-196 vote, agreed to proceed with it. Two Democrats voted against the resolution; Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party in July, voted in favor.
If the House votes to impeach Mr. Trump, as is now expected, it would take 20 Senate Republicans abandoning him to remove him from the highest office and make him the first ever so dispatched by congressional will.
But right now, Trump seems to hold a tighter grip on the Grand Old Party than Nixon did then, when the evidence captured in the White House tapes documented his involvement in the Watergate fiasco and sealed his fate.
Those tapes recorded Nixon’s willingness to stop any investigation — he even talked of buying the silence of the burglars who had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex — though it was never proved that he knew of the raid beforehand.
One investigator argued later that the break-in was not conducted to find dirt on the Democrats; rather it was done to intercept evidence that Nixon had urged South Vietnamese officials to boycott an 11th-hour Paris peace conference on the eve of the U.S. presidential election that might have undercut his reelection.
This time around, the Democratic case against Mr. Trump is based on a clearly impeachable offense. The charge is that Trump used his office to hold back $391 million in congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine in order to extort that country’s government into helping produce political dirt on former vice president Joe Biden and his son, as well as into substantiating a bizarre conspiracy theory about CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that linked the 2015-16 cyber attacks on the DNC to Russian intelligence services.
Veteran American diplomats dealing with Ukraine have now lined up before House impeachment investigators, testifying their evidence of Trump’s quid pro quo pressure campaign against the Ukrainians. Congressional Republicans and Trump staffers are growing more apprehensive that one or more impeachable offenses will be hung on the sitting president, and Trump himself shows signs of panic.
Allies tell reporters of their consternation that Trump seems to lack any effective defense strategy, instead resorting to his customary bombast and slanders on Twitter.
Mr. Trump and his inner circle have assaulted the character and patriotism of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a distinguished Army combat veteran in Afghanistan, born in Ukraine but long a naturalized U.S. citizen, who serves on the staff of the National Security Council. His testimony before congressional committees elucidated two key events. He was present at a meeting at which Trump surrogates in the State Department urged a Ukrainian official to investigate Biden in return for a meeting with Trump. He also testified he listened in on the phone call in which Trump made the quid pro quo offer. He later discovered the official transcript of the call contained omissions. His attempts to correct the omissions were not successful.
Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, defended Mr. Vindman from Republican calumny. “We’re talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation who have put their lives on the line,” she said. “It’s shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation. And we should not be involved in that process.”
The testimony of acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor first confirmed that Trump had offered a quid pro quo to the Ukrainian president on the Bidens, though Trump still denies it.
The question for the 20 Republican senators who now appear to hold the power to determine whether the Trump charade goes on or is finally halted, is whether their own consciences mean anything to them anymore.
Will the president’s wall of partisan solidarity hold? As Republicans ponder their moment of truth, and possibly the survival of their party, the Democrats will be using the mandate they now have to gather more testimony against Trump and make it public.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.