Ex-Congresswoman Who Voted to Impeach Nixon: Trump Firing Sessions Brings Back Troubling Memories

Democrats have seized control of the House of Representatives, flipping more than two dozen seats in a historic midterm election that gives Democrats subpoena power for the first time since President Donald Trump was elected two years ago. A day after the election, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump’s firing of Sessions has led to many comparisons between Trump and former President Richard Nixon. On Wednesday, CNN’s Jake Tapper called Sessions’s ouster another chapter in “a slow-motion, multi-monthed Saturday Night Massacre.” He was referencing the infamous Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy resigned after President Richard Nixon ordered Richardson to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. We speak with Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. congressmember from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. Her new book, “The Case for Impeaching Trump,” is out on Monday. And we speak with David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Democrats have seized control of the House of Representatives, flipping more than two dozen seats in a historic midterm election that gives Democrats subpoena power for the first time since President Donald Trump was elected two years ago. A day after the election, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Trump’s firing of Sessions has led to many comparisons between Trump and former President Richard Nixon. On Wednesday, CNN’s Jake Tapper called Sessions’ ouster another chapter in, quote, “a slow-motion, multi-monthed Saturday Night Massacre.” He was referencing the infamous Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy resigned after President Richard Nixon ordered Richardson to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we continue our conversation with Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. congresswoman from New York. She served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. For over 40 years, she had the record of being the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Her new book, The Case for Impeaching Trump, is out Monday. Still with us, David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

So, the Saturday Night Massacre. I mean, as you were watching this unfold yesterday, Liz, you must have—you must have been flooded with memories.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Oh, yeah. And it’s not just happy memories. These are very troubling memories. In fact, you can say that you get a, you know, tingling up and down your spine from the repetition here.

What triggered Richard Nixon’s impeachment was his view that he was above the law, and particularly that he could not be held accountable—he and his staff and his colleagues accountable—under the criminal law. So, when the special prosecutor asked for his tapes—Nixon had White House tapes, and the tapes could prove whether or not he had ordered a cover-up—Nixon said, “No, you’re not getting the tapes, and you’re going to be fired.” And he ordered the special prosecutor fired. And two—the attorney general resigned; deputy attorney general resigned. And then Robert Bork, number three, fired him.

The American people understood what was going on. They knew that the tapes could prove whether the president of the United States had engaged in a cover-up or whether John Dean, who alleged he had been involved in a cover-up, was lying. Who was telling the truth? They understood this. And they said, “Congress, you have to do something about it.”

AMY GOODMAN: And these were tapes that Richard Nixon had secretly ordered himself.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: The taping of the White House.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Correct. And so, at that point, the impeachment inquiry started. We didn’t know exactly where it was going to go, but that’s when it started.

And right now you have a president of the United States who had waited, deliberately, ’til after the midterm elections, so it would have no adverse political impact on him, to fire the attorney general of the United States. Why did he fire him? There’s nothing that—as Mr. Cole said, there’s nothing that Sessions did that was contrary to his political view, I mean, or political agenda, the president’s political views or political agenda, except that he wouldn’t take control and he wouldn’t oversee and he wouldn’t supervise and he wouldn’t interfere with Mueller’s investigation. And that was anathema to this president, because this president, just like Nixon, wants to control the criminal process that’s going to take place against him and his friends.

And that is—if we go down that road, we are becoming a banana republic. That’s not the United States of America. We are a country that’s committed to the rule of law, and the president cannot put his finger on the thumb—on the scale—his thumb on the scale of justice. That’s not going to happen. And if it does happen, then God help America.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, independent Senator Bernie Sanders has warned that any attempt at obstruction on Trump’s part, obstruction of the Russia probe, would be an impeachable offense. He tweeted Wednesday, quote, “Any attempt by the president or the Justice Department to interfere with Mueller’s probe would be an obstruction of justice and impeachable offense.” Liz, your—

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, there’s no question about that. That was—the firing by Richard Nixon of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, to stop and squelch that investigation, was one of the grounds for the impeachment vote against Richard Nixon. So it may not—you don’t even need to go much farther, I think, than even the appointment of Mr. Whitaker, because it seems apparent that Mr. Whitaker is there for one purpose, which is to control and interfere with this investigation. And if that turns out to be—and Congress can investigate that. And if it turns out that the purpose was to interfere with this investigation, then that, in and of itself, becomes not only a basis for—becomes a basis for the removal and impeachment of Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Liz Holtzman, last week, the National Archives released documents from the Watergate scandal, including new information relating to the indictment against President Richard Nixon. The draft documents, known as the “Watergate Road Map,” show plans to charge Nixon with bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and obstruction of a criminal investigation. Nixon was never charged with the crimes, though a number of his aides were. And some went to jail. The documents were released after a lawsuit requested they be made public, citing their relevance for special counsel Robert Mueller if he decides to issue a report to Congress as part of the ongoing probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. So, talk about—you know well—what this indictment was of Richard Nixon.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, let’s just make one point. Richard Nixon was named by the grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator. That is the only time that’s ever happened in the history of the United States. So, the grand jury wanted to indict Richard Nixon. This wasn’t a hypothetical, a draft indictment. The grand jury said, “We want to indict Richard Nixon.” They were told by the special prosecutor, “You can’t indict a sitting president.” I don’t necessarily agree with that. And so, as an alternative, they issued this—they charged him as being an unindicted co-conspirator. But yes, the Road Map pointed to—these were criminal charges that were going to be made against the president of the United States, and the supporting evidence.

Impeachment is not a criminal proceeding. Impeachment is a civil proceeding by Congress to preserve and restore our democracy. Doesn’t require a criminal standard of proof. It doesn’t require any of the trappings of a criminal proceeding. What its purpose is, is to take a president who is a threat to democracy, and remove that president from office. That’s what the Framers put impeachment into the Constitution for.

And that’s why the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon, in part because he obstructed the investigation into the break-in into the Watergate Hotel complex, the Democratic National Committee headquarters. And Donald Trump has done—has tried to interfere with this investigation. He hasn’t succeeded in derailing it. He hasn’t succeeded in stopping it. But he’s put Whitaker there. Clearly, the appearance is to shut it down.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean? What if Whitaker shut it down or starved it of funds? What does Mueller need to have in place now? And what would happen if he were fired? Could the indictments be made public, if there are some already sealed?

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, that’s a very interesting question, as to what would happen. I think we would have a national crisis, first of all. If the American people, at that point, don’t rise up to protect our democracy, then maybe nothing can preserve it. Because that’s what happened in Watergate. The American people forced Congress. Democrats were in control, Republican president, but the Democrats didn’t want to bring impeachment proceedings. The American people forced them to do that. The democracy will—

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t they? Because that’s the critical point here.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Why didn’t they? Because they were, in a way—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a very critical issue. I mean, Nancy Pelosi, who has said she’s going to run for House speaker again—

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Look—

AMY GOODMAN: —has famously said impeachment is off the table.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Yeah, because it’s an unknown process, because the first time that Congress ever did an impeachment of a president was against Andrew Johnson, and that was done in a partisan way, and it left a historical taint. We did the Nixon impeachment process. We did it in a bipartisan way. We did it in a fair way. That should have given the American people a sense that this process works to preserve democracy. But then we had the Clinton impeachment, which was, again, an abuse of power, as the Andrew Johnson impeachment was.

But the issue is that the—I don’t really—I wasn’t privy to why the speaker of the House and the majority leader, both Democrats, did not want to proceed with impeachment proceedings until the Saturday Night Massacre. I think it’s because they just didn’t know what was going to happen. The proceeding itself was—you know, had a bad taint historically. And they didn’t know how the public was going to react. You know, really, take down a president? Richard Nixon, unlike Trump, who squeaked through in his election—Richard Nixon was elected with one of the biggest landslides in American history.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1972.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: In 1972. So, for an impeachment to take place, you’d have to change the minds of a majority of American voters. Democrats weren’t sure that could ever happen. So they were worried about the political consequences for themselves, instead of thinking about the country.

But the American people demanded. They said, “Congress, you’ve got to protect our democracy.” And Congress did. We didn’t take a nose count before we started. We didn’t even know what—I remember, when we started the impeachment proceedings, nobody even knew what a high crime and misdemeanor was. What’s the standard for impeachment? None of us had studied this in law school.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what happened, in the end, why Richard Nixon left.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Richard Nixon left because the House Judiciary Committee, proceeding in a methodical, fair, transparent, open and bipartisan fashion, voted that he engaged in impeachable offenses. And ultimately, every single Republican on the committee—initially, when we voted, there were about 11, 12 Republicans who didn’t join. We had seven or eight who did. When there was a tape recording that was released that showed Nixon himself orchestrating the cover-up from the very beginning, all the Republicans joined with all the Democrats in saying Richard Nixon should be impeached, including the most conservative.

At that point, the handwriting was on the wall. It was clear. Every single member of the House Judiciary Committee, including conservative Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats, supported impeachment. The House was going to support impeachment overwhelmingly. And he would be removed by vote, convicted in the Senate and removed.

And he saw the handwriting on the wall. He didn’t want that humiliation. It was bad enough that he had to resign, became the first American president to resign. But it was because the process was fair, open and won the respect of the American people, many of whom—most of whom had supported Richard Nixon in the election just a year and a half before. So it can be done. But it has to—

AMY GOODMAN: So, Richard Nixon resigned and didn’t get impeached.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: No. There was a vote to impeach in the House Judiciary Committee. That was enough for Richard Nixon to get the message he had to get out, because, otherwise, he’d be forcibly removed by the House, full House, and the Senate.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to Sessions’ replacement, Matthew Whitaker, and his comments on another issue in an interview with CNN last year. He said about the Constitution’s emoluments clause that, quote, “the ethics laws and the conflict of interest rules do not apply to the president or the vice president.” So, David Cole, could you respond to that? And also, if Whitaker were to impede or entirely halt Mueller’s investigation, is this likely to provoke a constitutional crisis as some say it will?

DAVID COLE: So, on the first question, the emoluments clause is a conflict of interest provision, and it is directly applicable to the president and says the president can’t intermix his private monetary interests with the power of his office, which is, of course, exactly what he’s doing. Two courts have ruled that cases against the president for violating the emoluments clause can go forward, against the Justice Department’s efforts to dismiss them. So, Whitaker is just wrong on that one.

On the second one, on whether this will provoke a constitutional crisis, I think, you know, Liz Holtzman is right: It depends on the American people. And I think, you know, in some sense, it depends on whether there is a smoking gun. Facts do matter. I’m hoping that in the social media world, facts still matter.

And, you know, these are the actions—if you look at what Trump has done, these are the actions of a man with something to hide. If you have nothing to hide, then you don’t mind the fact that there’s an investigation; you welcome an investigation. An investigation into Russian interference with our democratic process? Anyone who didn’t have anything to hide would say, “Absolutely, let’s look into that.” In fact, what he’s done is, at every stage, try to obstruct it.

Mueller is diligent. Mueller is talented. Mueller has been incredibly disciplined about this. You know, I think Mueller will reveal whatever’s there that Trump is seeking to hide. And then the question is: Will the American people—and, most importantly, will the Republicans in the Senate—hold country over party loyalty?

AMY GOODMAN: The Miami New Times reports Matthew Whitaker was also involved in a Miami-based invention marketing company the Federal Trade Commission shut down last year after calling it a scam. The paper reported Whitaker not only sat on the board of World Patent Marketing, but also once sent a threatening email to a former customer who had complained after he spent thousands of dollars and did not receive the promised services. I mean, we’re just learning about Matthew Whitaker right now.

DAVID COLE: Yeah, yeah. And all we really know is that his number one qualification for the job was loyalty to President Trump and criticism of the Mueller investigation. And that’s not a justification for being the highest law enforcement officer in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Liz Holtzman, just before we break, Deb Haaland is our next guest, and she has made history. She is one of two Native American women who will be going to Congress. This is for the first time ever in this country. She’s from New Mexico. You made history as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and you held that record for over 40 years. Do you have a suggestion for her—you, Liz Holtzman, who is now the author of The Case for Impeaching Trump?

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, first of all, congratulations to her. And secondly, while all of these terrible things are happening with regard to the president of the United States and interference with the rule of law and with justice, the dream of America is still pretty strong. If we can have people who have been excluded, Native American women, who have never served in Congress, now can reach for that high position, that’s great, and I’m excited.

Read my book. Americans should read my book, understand how the process works. We don’t need a smoking gun to start it. We do need a sense that the president is interfering with the rule of law. The minute that happens, then Congress has to act, and the American people have to act, to start investigations.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Liz Holtzman, at 31 years old, she was the youngest woman elected to Congress, held that record for more than 40 years, until Elise Stefanik was elected in New York in 2014 at age 30. And now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at 29, will be the youngest member, the youngest woman elected to Congress. Liz Holtzman, former U.S. congresswoman. Her new book, The Case for Impeaching Trump. And David Cole, who is the legal director of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union.

When we come back, we go to New Mexico to speak with Deb Haaland, made history as one of two Native American women elected to Congress for the first time ever. Stay with us.