Former White House counsel John Dean and other expert witnesses laid out the case Monday for impeaching President Donald Trump in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, and Dean drew parallels between Richard Nixon’s case and Trump’s.
Their testimony confirmed what special counsel Robert Mueller’s report implied — that it is now up to Congress to decide whether the president committed a crime.
“Congress — constitutionally, the first branch among equals — has a duty to investigate, expose, and hold accountable anyone who abuses the power of the presidency,” former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance told the committee. “This hearing is a first step in fulfilling that duty, and I am both honored and sobered to contribute to this essential work.”
The testimony Monday by Dean, Vance, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Malcolm focused on allegations that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, released in April, cleared Trump and his campaign of criminally conspiring with Russia’s 2016 election meddling. But Mueller declined to determine whether Trump may have obstructed justice, and his report details 10 instances in which Trump appeared to use his office to hinder the special counsel’s investigation.
Democrats on the committee focused their questions on one of those incidents — a June 17, 2017 phone call in which Trump allegedly asked former White House Counsel Don McGahn to direct Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to remove Mueller.
In a March 24 letter to Congress, Attorney General William Barr said that he and Rosenstein did not believe Mueller’s evidence was sufficient to charge Trump with obstruction.
In their testimony Monday, however, Dean, Vance, and McQuade seemed to call on Congress to take up the obstruction investigation.
“[T]he conduct described in the [Mueller] report constitutes multiple crimes on obstruction of justice,” McQuade said flatly in her prepared testimony.
Malcolm, now a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, was the odd person out, criticizing Mueller for not reaching a prosecutorial decision on obstruction of justice and calling Barr and Rosenstein’s decision not to indict Trump “eminently reasonable.”
Dean participated in the Watergate coverup during the Nixon administration and later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. His testimony Monday drew repeated parallels between actions taken by Trump and those taken by Nixon, who faced impeachment hearings in 1974 for a host of alleged abuses of power, including obstruction of justice.
He also praised McGahn on Monday for refusing the president’s directive to have Mueller fired, saying there is “evidence he prevented several obstruction attempts.”
A debate over impeachment has raged in the Democratic House caucus. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called on the various committees investigating Trump and his administration to “build on an ironclad case to act.” But she has held off on joining calls for impeachment from 56 members of her caucus, including several committee chairs.
Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) has backed Pelosi, saying that the House “cannot impeach a president if the American people will not support it.”
For many House Democrats, it’s a difficult position. Passing on impeachment could mean failing to hold the president accountable for acts that many believe amount to criminal abuses of his office, but impeaching the president in an election year could backfire politically. Impeachment hearings may also build public support for the process and educate the public about Mueller’s report, a document which has not even been widely read by members of Congress, according to Dean.
Hanging over the debate is the unavoidable fact that the Republican-controlled Senate is certain to acquit Trump on any impeachment articles passed by House Democrats.
But whatever the political calculations, Monday’s testimony was clear — there is reason to believe the president obstructed justice, and impeachment remains the only course of action in holding a sitting president accountable for criminal actions.
“[A] president, while he cannot be indicted, can be impeached in Congress if the House feels his conduct warrants it,” Vance testified.