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Down memory lane

As the Trump impeachment inquiry has unfolded, I’ve been musing over memories of the Senate Watergate committee, whose meetings we watched on our small black-and-white TV back in 1974. I particularly remember how two of the three Republican members of that committee, only slightly outnumbered by the four Democrats, put their oath of office and their duty to the Constitution ahead of their desire that their party prevail in the next election.

Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee is remembered for his famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” This was remarkable, coming from an ardent Nixon supporter who, only the year before, promised Nixon, “I’m your friend. I’m going to see that your interests are protected.”

Sen. Lowell Weiker was a popular politician from the state of Connecticut. Before the Watergate hearings he had supported President Nixon, but the evidence presented to his committee changed his mind. He implored Nixon to resign. (Which Nixon did on Aug. 4, 1974. My soon-to-be-husband and I went to a bar so we could watch the announcement in color.) Weiker later recalled: “People in Connecticut were very much behind President Nixon, like the rest of the country. They thought he could do no wrong, and when I was in Connecticut, I would get flipped the bird all the time, whether it was on the streets or in the car, for the role that I was playing.”

Fast-forward 45 years to 2019 and the impeachment inquiry conducted by the House Intelligence Committee. Instead of seriously considering the evidence presented to them, the Republican members double down on talking points such as:

¯ The military aid that was withheld during the summer was eventually delivered in the fall — no harm, no foul.

¯ We need DIRECT testimony from the whistleblower, even though all evidence in the whistleblower’s statement was hearsay.

¯ Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani didn’t succeed in pressuring Ukraine — President Zelensky never actually made the announcement they wanted. (This argument is especially bizarre; our criminal code punishes an attempted crime almost as severely as a completed one.)

Even so, the testimony and other evidence presented to the House Intelligence Committee clearly indicate that Giuliani, at Trump’s express direction, was undermining longstanding U.S. policy objectives for Ukraine. Those objectives were: Strengthen democracy, eliminate corruption, and help Ukraine resist Russian aggression. Further, that he was doing so in order to advance Trump’s political interests. He was, in effect, pressuring the Ukrainian government to interfere with the United States’ national election of 2020.

By contrast, Nixon’s crimes were more straightforward: He covered up his knowledge of an amateur and unsuccessful burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex, authorized payoffs to the burglars, ignored congressional subpoenas and refused to hand over critical evidence until the Supreme Court ruled that he had to. He also threw a number of his aides and associates under the proverbial bus. But after Nixon was forced to produce the audiotapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, it was all over. Republicans who believed in the rule of law and the integrity of the office of president of the United States were appalled by Nixon’s conduct and pressured him to resign.

While Nixon’s misdeeds were reprehensible and merited impeachment, they pale in comparison with those committed by the Trump administration. The sworn testimony and other evidence presented to the House Intelligence Committee clearly indicate that Trump deliberately weakened our national security in order to throw dirt on a political opponent. They knew that newly elected Ukrainian President Zelensky desperately wanted a visit to the White House and the delivery of military aid authorized by Congress so that the Ukrainians could better fight off the Russians. A visit to the White House would show Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States was still a strong ally. The military aid would give them effective weapons against Russian tanks. Putin might decide to back off.

But Trump and Giuliani made the meeting and the aid contingent on a public announcement by Zelensky that his justice department was investigating the Ukrainian oil company Burisma — of which Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter had been a board member. Yes, they really did seek a quid pro quo (the meeting for the announcement), offer a bribe (release of aid for announcement), and commit extortion (threats of no meeting and no aid). Chief of Staff and Director of the Office and Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney frankly admitted the quid pro quo in a public statement and then advised Americans, “Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

I’m sure he’s right — there have and probably always will be political interests served by U.S. foreign policy. But did Mulvaney really mean that political interests should override our national security? Foreign policy experts universally agree that a Ukraine that is democratic, independent, and free of corruption is a strong check on Russian hegemony and one of the strongest bulwarks we have against Putin’s efforts to weaken, divide and defeat the United States.

The Ukrainians evidently realized they were being played; they never gave in to Trump and Giuliani’s attempts to strongarm them into interfering with a U.S. election. (I like to think that the intense efforts U.S. foreign service officials made to help them spot and resist corruption had an impact.) Only when it was revealed publicly that Mulvaney had frozen the aid, in an apparent attempt to pressure the Ukrainians, did the Trump administration quickly reverse course and release it.

I wonder what Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker would make of the testimony presented to the House Intelligence Committee during the past two weeks, Back in 1974, when Republican members of Congress believed national interests were more important than party interests, Lowell Weiker was one of the first to confront Nixon and urge him to resign. Howard Baker was not far behind.

Nixon’s chief of staff, John Dean, another staunch Republican, famously told his boss in 1973, “We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that’s growing.”

Forty-six years later, we have another cancer — and it has apparently spread from the president’s office to many of the members of the Republican Party.

Henrietta Jordan lives in Keene Valley.