Nancy Pelosi wasn’t in Congress during the Watergate scandal. She never served with Tip O’Neill, who was House Majority Leader during the scandal, and overlapped by less than one full term with Watergate-era House Judiciary Chair Peter Rodino. But her refusal to feed the impeachment flames, despite intense pressure from fellow Democrats, shows that she understands the most important lesson of Watergate.
O’Neill, as Fred Emery explained in his history of Watergate, saw impeachment and conviction coming very early, in January 1973, during the phase when the cover-up was still mostly holding and many dismissed the story. Here’s Emery (citing Jimmy Breslin): “O’Neill reckoned that so many bad things had been done by the Nixon men that they simply could not be kept secret indefinitely. Privately, he urged his surprised colleagues in the House leadership to ‘get ready for impeachment.’ They wondered whether he was unhinged.”
And yet in public, the future speaker demurred. So when Father Robert Drinan, a liberal firebrand member of the House from Massachusetts, formally introduced an impeachment resolution in July 1973, O’Neill downplayed it as “premature.” O’Neill believed that the pressure had to be built a step at a time: First, get everyone to back a full investigation, then build out the complete case that serious wrongdoing had occurred. Only after that should the House consider whether the only remedy was removing the president by the process set forth by the framers.
Granted, liberals now could argue that what we know about Trump is already sufficient without any further investigations. A strong case can be made for obstruction of justice simply from his widely reported words and actions.
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But this, too, was true about Richard Nixon fairly early on in the process. In March 1973, Nixon and White House counsel John Dean, who was the day-to-day manager of the cover-up, had a conversation that made it clear that Nixon was knee-deep (at least) in obstruction. Dean had testified about that conversation to the Senate Watergate Committee back in July 1973. But the lawyer who Rodino put in charge of the House Judiciary’s impeachment proceedings, John Doar, didn’t think that obstruction case was good enough for impeachment.
It’s very possible we’ll never get to impeachment. Perhaps there’s no more to be revealed, and even some of what we think we know will fall apart.
We don’t know what Nancy Pelosi’s long game is. She may very well believe, however, as Tip O’Neill did in early 1973, that Trump has done so much over his lifetime that a thorough investigation will turn up enough that defending him will eventually become untenable.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote “A Plain Blog About Politics.”