Now that the public meetings of the impeachment inquiry are opening
in the Congress, it is not altogether illusory to hope for a moment like
the one that saw a Republican, Sen. Howard Baker, ask a question that
contributed to bring down the Nixon presidency: “What the President
know, and when did he know it?” That question was asked during the
Watergate hearings on June 1973 just after former White House
Counsel John Dean had testified and exposed the pattern of corruption
and obstruction of justice by the president. Curiously, that question had
the purpose of proving that the accusations against the president were
based on circumstantial evidence. Shortly after, the answer came from
the publication of the secret White House office tapes.
What should be remember at this stage of the House enquiry on President
Trump is that Baker and all the Republicans on the Watergate committee
voted to subpoena the tapes. As for Sen. Baker, he stopped being an apologist
for President Nixon and moved out of the President’s camp. Could something
like that happen today? Judging from the obdurate defense of President
Trump by the Republican senators and representatives, it is unlikely. But as
the House gears up to investigate the president and his misdeeds in the
Ukraine episode, another Baker could emerge with a willful or inadvertent
question in the course of the inquiry.
The accusations against President Trump are based on the very sort
of misconduct for which the impeachment exists. As Alexander Hamilton
wrote in the Federalist Papers, the “abuse or violation of some public trust”
constitutes an impeachable offense.After President Trump held up hundreds
of millions of congressionally appropriated aid for Ukraine, in order to extort
a political favor from that country’s president, the Democrats in Congress
have to explain whether that conduct is indeed an impeachable offense.
The weight of the accusations falls upon the many witnesses that the
Democratic controlled committees will bring to testify. The question that should
then be asked and debated is this one: is it acceptable that an American president
pressure an ally for personal political gain?
A modern-day Howard Baker would ask this question. But you never can tell
in the sordid world of politics where political survival trumps the devotion
to the principles of the constitution. Public opinion may rise up to the
challenge of pushing Republicans to see the handwriting in the wall. Or it
may not, and the Republicans may continue to characterize the congressional
investigation as a partisan witch hunt. There is hope, however, that the
damning testimonies that the public is about to hear will defeat the efforts
to impede the progress of the investigation and later on of the inevitable
trial in the Senate. We will know soon enough.