Watergate-era Dem urges party to go after Trump on all fronts

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

Elizabeth Holtzman, a former member of the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Richard Nixon in 1974, warned Thursday that Democrats in charge of making the case against Donald Trump need to learn some lessons from the past.

“Perhaps because I participated in the only impeachment process that was a success in that it did remove a president from office, I see that as a pretty good example of what worked,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Holtzman, now 78 and of counsel with the New York law firm Herrick Feinstein, was, in 1972, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, where she served for eight years. She has long been a critic of the current president, and in January of this year published “The Case for Impeaching Trump,” a book which detailed allegations of what she views as violations of the Emoluments Clause. The book also takes issue with Trump over his policy of separating families who illegally cross the U.S. border with Mexico. Holtzman also analyzes his obstruction of investigations into his potential abuse of power and his refusal to harden the election system to avoid further interference.

Those allegations, which predate by months and years the ones in the whistleblower’s report that came to light this week, are why Holtzman is urging this generation's investigators to pursue multiple lines of inquiry.

Rep. James Mann, D-S.C., confers with Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman of New York during a recess of the House Judiciary Committee's debate on articles of impeachment in Washington, July 29, 1974. (Photo: AP)

To those pundits and politicians who are saying it might be simpler politically to focus only on Trump’s urging the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son, she responds that, because impeachment is a dramatic remedy, it requires a dramatic rationale.

“The constitutional framers argued about exactly this,” she said, noting that some of the Founding Fathers suggested that an impeachment provision was not necessary because “we have elections and we will solve the problem of a bad president with elections.” Others at the constitutional convention pushed back — and won — by arguing that “a president can become such a danger to democracy that he has to be removed promptly.”

The bar is high, she said, and “requires proving a threat to democracy. You show a number of grave, egregious abuses of power, you show that this is not an isolated act but a systemic use of power by the president of the United States against the Constitution and the people of the United States.”

She continued: “We didn’t just impeach Nixon for a cover-up. We had a many-pronged charge with regard to the cover-up, but then we also had abuses of power, illegal wire tapping, the enemies list, the break-in to Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. This was not one thing, but a president that had gone amok, and that is what created the danger to democracy.”

The same case can be made with Trump, Holtzman believes, but says that there is work to be done by Congress. “I think the case is very strong at this point, it’s just a question of can they put it together and acquire the additional evidence that needs to be acquired.”

President Trump at the White House, Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

She is not impressed so far by the questioning of recent witnesses Corey Lewandowski and Joseph Maguire, who she saw as “stonewalling” the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Representatives need to “get a lot tougher,” Holtzman said, and use such tools as contempt charges, fines, “warnings that they will draw the most serious adverse inference from refusal to cooperate that they can.” Should all that fail, she added, Democrats in Congress should “get out some fresh sheets, clean out the [detention] room in the Capitol and arrest them.”

As for the political realities of this investigation, Holtzman says she is unsure whether the Republicans in the Senate will ever be persuaded to vote to impeach. Both houses of Congress were under Democratic control in 1974, and even then it was a long and difficult fight. But even if failure is likely, she concludes, House Democrats are correct to take action.

“I don’t think she had a choice,” Holtzman said of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who finally agreed to back an impeachment investigation on Tuesday night, long after some in her party had begun calling for one.

“I think her hand was forced by the latest information. You can’t have a president using a foreign country to interfere in a presidential election and not declare that is unacceptable,” Holtzman said. “If you don’t stop him here, where will he be stopped?”

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