To channel my inner Lloyd Bentsen: Tom Brokaw knows Watergate. Watergate is a personal project of Tom Brokaw’s. And this, House Democrats, is no Watergate. NBC’s anchor emeritus has embarked on a tour in support of his new look at the 1970s scandal, The Fall of Richard Nixon, and tells MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the current impeachment effort against Donald Trump lacks “the goods.”
The case against Richard Nixon had bipartisan credibility because it was based on actual crimes, Brokaw points out, that had been well-established. In this case, Brokaw says, Democrats are pushing a remedy without establishing a clear need for one, other than their own political interests:
Brokaw, who covered the Watergate scandal as a White House correspondent in 1973, said Tuesday that Democrats don’t have “the goods” on Trump “with the same kind of clarity” the party did when Richard Nixon was president.
“The big difference is … they still don’t have what you call ‘the goods’ on this president in terms of breaking the law and being an impeachable target for them,” Brokaw said during an appearance on MSNBC.
“They’re going to start the process but they don’t have the same kind of clarity that the people who were opposed to Richard Nixon had because it was so clear that these were criminal acts that he was involved in,” he said.
In that sense, it’s not only that this is no Watergate, it’s no Clintongate either. The 1998 impeachment might have been a political miscalculation, but it did involve an actual crime: perjury and obstruction of justice in court, not involving Congress. The miscalculation in that case was that the crime didn’t involve Clinton’s exercise of executive power but instead personal conduct, which voters largely didn’t think rose to a level of misconduct requiring impeachment and removal. No one, however, disputed that Bill Clinton had committed a crime in lying about that personal conduct under oath in a deposition for a sexual-harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, not even Clinton himself, eventually.
In this case, House Democrats don’t even have a core statutory crime, nor are they likely to find one in Ukraine-Gate, although they might find enough swampy behavior for a good election argument against Trump. That’s going to be a problem for Democrats eventually, as I write in my column at The Week, even if Nancy Pelosi manages to pass her credibility-repair bill tomorrow. Without a core statutory crime, there’s no possibility for removal, which will leave voters wondering what all this is really about:
To fix that problem, and to force the Senate to take this more seriously, Pelosi has to revamp the process to provide at least the appearance of fairness. However, it’s not likely to matter in the end. Impeachment is only the first step in the removal process, and in this case it’s likely to be the last step Democrats can successfully take.
The Republicans control the Senate, but their majority matters less than the fact that Democrats don’t have a supermajority. If Democrats had uncovered a truly serious crime in this probe, that would likely convince at least 20 Senate Republicans to make Mike Pence president. The core problem is that Ukraine-Gate doesn’t appear to involve an explicit statutory crime at all, but instead an alleged abuse of authority to gain political advantage over former Vice President Joe Biden. The House can decide what constitutes an impeachable offense, but the Senate decides whether it’s even worthy of a full trial, let alone a removal.
An impeachment without a removal will, in the end, look a lot like a political campaign no matter how much Pelosi improves the process. Voters will ask themselves why Democrats spent all year obsessed with impeachment under varying rationalizations and then chose the one issue on which they could almost guarantee no success in removal. Pelosi may win a tactical victory with this upcoming vote, but it’s not going to solve the big strategic issue awaiting Democrats at the end of this process.
Without “the goods,” this is just an empty partisan exercise with even less credibility than Clintongate. That doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats will get punished for it at the ballot box next year, but Pelosi’s rush to get this over with speaks volumes about how she thinks it will be received.