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Analysis: Trump Faces Narrow but Consequential Charges

December 11, 2019

WASHINGTON – The articles of impeachment offered up Tuesday against President Donald Trump are narrow, but consequential. They are also likely to be approved by Democrats alone.

The impending vote will thrust Trump into a club no president wants to join: only the third American leader to be impeached by the House of Representatives. He’s confronting his allegations without a hint of contrition, more eager to fight than accept blame for his actions.

House Democrats say Trump abused the American presidency for personal political gain by asking Ukraine for help investigating political rivals, including Joe Biden, the former vice president and current Democratic White House contender. And they charge he obstructed Congress by blocking access to documents and testimony, an article of impeachment aimed at reasserting the authority of a co-equal branch of government.

Some Democrats pushed for more, eager to seize the opportunity to hold Trump to account for a range of other actions, including evidence of obstruction of justice outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held them off, determined to put forward only articles she believes can win the support of members who — like Pelosi herself — were reluctant to launch the impeachment proceedings in the first place.

“I wish it were not necessary,” Pelosi said after the text of the articles of impeachment were made public. But she added: “We take an oath to protect and defend. If we did not do that, we would be, again, delinquent in our duties.”

While she seems to have succeeded in persuading Democrats of that view, the process — dozens of hours of public testimony from diplomats and other national security officials that left much of the evidence beyond dispute — has so far done nothing to persuade Republicans to break with the president.

Broadening the charges would have only risked turning off Democrats, some particularly those moderates who won in House districts where Trump is popular.

“I think they made a calculation in the House that the evidence that had been presented recently with regards to Trump’s actions involving Ukraine were concise, clear and accessible,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a Biden supporter. “Rather than charging a broad range of misconduct over many years, they stuck to one topic.”

Though there are few historical comparisons, the Democrats’ decision means Trump will face fewer articles of impeachment than any of his predecessors in trying to avoid the ultimate constitutional punishment for a president.

The House approved 11 charges against Andrew Johnson, the first president to be impeached in 1868. In 1974, lawmakers were set to vote on three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon — abuse of power, obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress — but he resigned from office when it became clear the charges had bipartisan support.

Lawmakers voted on four articles against President Bill Clinton in 1994 after being presented with 11 possible impeachable offenses by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. But only two passed — exactly the kind of scenario Pelosi and other Democratic leaders hoped to avoid.

During the Clinton impeachment, the House backed charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, but a substantial number of Republicans helped to vote down the abuse of power and another charge of perjury.

While more moderate Democrats cheered Pelosi’s decision to limit the scope of the impeachment articles, others bemoaned a missed opportunity to hold Trump to account for Mueller’s findings. Mueller said Justice Department guidelines prevented bringing criminal charges against a sitting president, but he appeared to suggest there was another venue to take up the matter: Congress.

The articles unveiled Tuesday make no specific mention of Mueller’s investigation, though there was an oblique reference in the obstruction of Congress charge, which states that Trump’s actions in this matter are “consistent” with previous attempts “to undermine United States Government investigations into foreign interference in United States elections.”

Corey Brettschneider, a professor of political science at Brown University and the author of “The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents,” called the absence of a specific Mueller-related article a “failure of constitutional duty.”

Yet even that more limited scope seems unlikely to gain Republican votes, despite private concerns among some GOP lawmakers with Trump’s actions. No Republicans, in the House or the Senate, voiced support for the articles on Tuesday, including those who are leaving Congress next year.

“My mind hasn’t been changed,” said Rep. Will Hurd, a moderate Republican from Texas who Democrats had hoped to persuade.

Pelosi spent months arguing that Democrats shouldn’t proceed with impeachment unless they could bring some Republicans along with them. A strictly partisan process, she said, would be too damaging for the nation.

But as her party pushed closer to just that scenario, she said inaction would be more destructive.

“If we allow one president, any president, no matter who she or he may be, to go down this path, we are saying goodbye to the republic and hello to a president king,” Pelosi said.

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