Hey Democrats, stop cheering your first stabs at impeachment. A key lesson emerged in this week’s impeachment hearings — but I fear too many of you missed it.
What stood out for me was not the sense of impending doom for Donald Trump’s presidency — though that is certainly a possibility. The lesson many missed is how so much potential evidence against Trump is still elusive.
To put it another way: Where’s the smoking gun?
It’s the same question that was asked for more than two years during that other impeachment drama that everyone now seems to look to for guidance — Watergate.
I had a front row seat to the Senate Watergate hearings during the summer of 1973 as an intern reporter with the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau. My job was to cover the Illinois Congressional delegation and the Alaska pipeline legislation — big news for the Midwest during the gas shortage of the early 1970s. Needless to say, I was busy.
The Watergate testimony unfolded just across Constitution Avenue from my desk in the Capitol in the ornate, cavernous Senate caucus room that hosted hearings into the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the Teapot Dome scandal in 1923 and the Army-McCarthy inquiry in 1954.How could I resist staying away? So I volunteered to jump into the soup, mostly to write background features on the witnesses or to talk with spectators and other second-tier players.
Looking back now, it’s far too easy to say that the evidence against Richard Nixon was clear. It wasn’t.
Watergate unfolded slowly
Equally important, the story did not unfold quickly either. The hearings did not follow the snappy pace of the 1976 film, “All The President’s Men.” As The Washington Post noted after the first day's witness, Robert Odle, methodically described in a matter-of-fact voice the bureaucracy of Richard Nixon's reelection committee: "If you like to watch grass grow, you would have loved the opening yesterday of the Senate select committee's hearings."
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Yes, there was plenty of drama as the days dragged on. I was in the room, for example, when John Dean testified about a “cancer” on Nixon’s presidency. And yes, there was plenty of signs that Nixon was a vindictive schemer.
But consider this: The Senate Watergate Committee never was able to determine who actually authorized the infamous burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office complex in Washington. And despite all sorts of testimony — some of it conflicting — the evidence of Nixon’s attempt to cover up the White House links to the burglary was mostly second-hand in the initial stages of the Watergate hearings.
Then, nearly two months into the testimony, the narrative changed in ways few had envisioned.
Alexander Butterfield, a little-known administration aide, stepped into the caucus room room and revealed that Nixon secretly taped his own conversations.
It was an ah-ha moment. Here, finally, was the smoking gun of evidence that could toss Nixon from the White House. But just as suddenly, came the reality check: Finding that smoking gun was going to take time.
Democrats' looming deadline
It took more than a year of court arguments and other drama — remember the Saturday Night Massacre firings? — for the tapes to be released and for Congress and the nation to finally find that elusive and rock-solid level of evidence that forced Nixon to resign.
So stop for a moment and consider the Watergate timeline:
The Watergate burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972, setting off suspicions of a White House plot. But the Senate Select Watergate Committee did not open hearings until May 1973. Dean did not testify until June 25. Three weeks later — on July 16 — Butterfield finally confirmed Nixon’s taping system. And then, another year passed before Nixon, facing sure impeachment and removal from office, finally gave up the fight and resigned.
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With Trump, some giddy Democrats say they hope to vote on impeachment before the end of 2019 or in early 2020. There is, after all, evidence that Trump wanted a foreign nation — Ukraine — to illegally step into an American election and dig up dirt on Trump's potential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. As pressure against Ukraine, Trump seemed to dangle the threat of holding up U.S. military aid that would help the Ukrainians in their war with neighboring Russia.
The Democrats might actually make their deadline. More doubtful, however, is whether they have enough time or witnesses to be able to dig up conclusive proof of Trump’s malfeasance — the kind of proof that would move enough Republicans to join Democrats and demand that Trump leave office.
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I realize that Democrats and their supporters will sneer at such news. And certainly, I'm not trying to defend Trump here.
Democrats will surely point to the highly credible memo from the person known only as “the whistleblower.” And, yes, we have the so-called transcript of that famous phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After Zelensky asked Trump during the call about U.S. aid for Ukraine, Trump seemed to channel his inner Godfather by responding: “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Looking for the smoking gun
But let’s face facts: We don’t yet have any witness — or recorded conversation — that shows Trump ordering up a Ukrainian-guns-for-Biden dirt kind of plot. Nor is there a shred of evidence that such a plan was actually carried out.
And then, keep in mind this salient fact: The Ukrainians eventually received the military aid that Trump is accused of trying to hold back in return for a “favor.” The Ukrainians also claim they never felt they were being extorted and never investigated Biden.
Yes, Democrats will say that Trump released the Ukrainian money weeks after the whistle blower report circulated within his administration and as questions surfaced about him. And, yes, the Ukrainians, desperate for even more help from the Trump administration, are unlikely to proclaim that they were victims of a shake-down.
But all this, frankly, points to the murkiness of this case.
During Watergate, a key question was asked over and over: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
Now the question seems to be this: “What did the president do and when did he do it?”
This week’s hearings opened doors. But they also illuminated a tangled web of questions.
Like Watergate, finding the answers may take time.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Donald Trump impeachment: Democrats, Watergate had a smoking gun