I was a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School during the Watergate years of 1972 through 1974. In addition to completing my course assignments, I spent much of my time reading articles by legal scholars as to what constitutes an impeachable offense. The Watergate scandal of the then President Richard Nixon, resulting in his resignation on August 9, 1974 was the focus of the nation
The articles by legal scholars focused on Article 2, Section 4 of the United States Constitution, the Executive Branch Impeachment Clause, which reads as follows:
“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The words “treason” and “bribery” are self-evident as to their meaning. The meaning of the phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is far more nebulous.
Of all the works I have read on the meaning of this phrase, the best was not by a legal scholar, but instead by a journalist, Theodore H. White, the author of the landmark five volume work, The Making of the President. His book, Breach of Faith, in my view is the definitive history of both the Watergate crimes and the then ensuing impeachment process.
In defining a test for an impeachable offense involving a “high Crime or Misdemeanor,” White established in Breach of Faith a standard that is more political in nature than legalistic. By “political,” I am not speaking about partisan campaign politics, but rather the bipartisan and nonpartisan politics of effective government.
Specifically, White elucidates an essential myth that binds Americans together: the notion that somewhere in America, there is at least one person who stands for law, the President. When a president takes an action that destroys this necessary essential faith in presidential integrity, he or she has committed a breach of faith constituting a high Crime or Misdemeanor.
Accordingly, breach of faith is the essential abuse of power that warrants a president’s removal from office. Richard M. Nixon’s breach of faith was simple: His effort to cover up White House involvement in both the Watergate burglary and the illegal efforts of the “Plumbers” to discredit Daniel Ellsberg. A major event in the Nixonian cover-up and attempted obstruction of justice was the October, 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the then Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
The Trump breach of faith is two-fold – and far more egregious and threatening to the nation than anything Nixon ever did.
The first aspect is Trump’s blatant effort to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the possibility of collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. The probe involves evidence emerging in American and European media regarding Trump’s business relationships with Russian oligarchs. Another focus is whether the Trump campaign in any way collaborated with the Russians in their 2016 cyber-attack against the United States.
The nationally renowned legal scholar Laurence Tribe has already written that Trump’s attempted obstruction of the FBI probe, including the firing of FBI Director James Comey, constitutes an impeachable offense. There is no way that Trump can discredit Tribe – he described Tribe as an eminent Constitutional scholar in his 2016 effort to disqualify Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate on account of his Canadian birthplace.
Yet a far more serious impeachable breach of faith is Trump’s reported disclosure of highly classified information in the White House Oval Office last week to two representatives of an adversary of the United States, the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador.
The information disclosed by Trump to the Russians had been received by the United States from a foreign partner. If true, its disclosure by Trump was in violation of the standard provision that America may not disclose such information to a third party without the foreign partner’s consent. Due to Trump’s action, America’s capacity to enlist foreign partners in intelligence gathering has been impaired throughout the world.
As described in yesterday’s Washington Post, Trump disclosed at the meeting with the Russians highly sensitive classified information regarding how the Islamic State (ISIS) was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Even more egregious was Trump’s revelation of the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence foreign partner detected the threat. Trump achieved a new level of outrage when he barred American journalists from the meeting but permitted the Russian state news agency, Tass, to cover same.
This disclosure of state secrets by Trump is much more than an impeachable offense. It establishes that Donald Trump, as president, is a national security risk and that every day he sits in the Oval Office, American national security is endangered.
The gravity of this Trump offense was best stated last night by the famed legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, who had previously defended Trump’s firing of Comey. Dershowitz described Trump’s disclosure to the Russian representatives as “the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president.”
It is imperative that in order to protect our national security, Donald Trump must be compelled by Republicans in the United States Senate and House of Representatives to resign immediately. In doing so, these members of Congress must put country over party as did former Republican U.S. Senators Howard Baker, Hugh Scott, and Barry Goldwater when they confronted Richard Nixon and urged his resignation in August, 1974.
It will not be easy for my fellow Republicans who sit in the U.S. Congress to compel the resignation of Donald Trump. But if they succeed, it will be their finest hour.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.