Republican defenders of President Donald Trump on the House Judiciary Committee spent last Thursday attempting to explain why he did not deserve to be impeached. They denied wrongdoing. They spoke of Ukraine government corruption. They cast the president as the victim of a partisan “witch hunt” or similar trope. But mostly they complained about procedure, about timing, about witnesses, about bias. What they failed to produce for all their 14 hours of fury and name-calling was an especially convincing argument that Mr. Trump did not pressure Ukraine on behalf of his presidential campaign by holding vital federal aid hostage and, in the process, attempt to harm U.S. national security. That he was unsuccessful in his attempt is unimportant. Attempted abuse of power is still abuse of power.
Twenty-one years ago and almost to the week, William Jefferson Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on much thinner grounds, chiefly for lying under oath about a sexual relationship with a White House intern and seeking to cover up this peccadillo for which the House added an obstruction of justice charge. Even many of his defenders, including this newspaper’s editorial board, condemned Mr. Clinton’s actions but questioned whether matters of personal conduct more suited for marriage counseling or divorce court could be worthy of impeachment. “President Clinton’s behavior, however reckless and immoral,” we wrote on December of 1998, “does not qualify for the constitutional definition of high crimes and misdemeanors as the Framers intended or as the words have been understood for two centuries.”
Friday morning’s 23-17 party line votes by the House Judiciary Committee to approve two articles of impeachment are surely no cause for celebration. It was a “solemn and sad” thing, as Chairman Jerrold Nadler told reporters, this exercise of constitutional authority, this check and balance on executive abuse. Republicans are correct in at least one criticism: It’s not clear that Democrats benefit politically from Thursday’s action or, if as expected, at least 218 members of the House vote to impeach in the days ahead. They may well not be helped in 2020. But that is no more important than questioning whether the neighborhood cop might lose popularity by arresting criminals. The men and women elected to Congress took an oath of office to support and defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies “foreign and domestic.” To have decided that the messy business of impeachment was not worth the risk to their own reelections, would have, as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff observed, made House members complicit in the president’s wrongdoing.
History is being made. President Trump is just the fourth U.S. president to face impeachment. Indeed, if he is impeached as expected, he will be only the third to face a trial in the U.S. Senate (Richard Nixon having resigned from office before he could be impeached). Yet in many respects, the proceedings have held all the drama of a late-night TV rerun. The basic facts of Mr. Trump’s Ukraine scheme aimed chiefly at former Vice President Joe Biden are not seriously disputed, no matter the outlandish protestations — whether in the GOP caucus, in the claims of a deeply servile attorney general or on the often comedic if seldom honest presidential Twitter feed. And Republicans in their Senate, to their shame, seem to only be contemplating how best to roll over in submission to their party’s leader. Possibly the only uncertainty left: lengthy defense with witnesses, as Mr. Trump prefers, or brief proceedings without, as it appears Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is contemplating.
Yet there is purpose in all of it. There is no hope for accountability from this or future presidents without such an effort. There is no greater exposure of Republican hypocrisy and gall than to watch them explain such concepts as how the case against President Trump hinged on second-hand evidence when it is the president who denied the House an opportunity to hear from primary source witnesses. The innocent do not fear the testimony of their own employees. They do not refuse to cooperate with legal proceedings. They do not run and hide while re-tweeting rants and name calling by third-rate talk show hosts and the like. They face the music. They take concepts like “honor” and “duty” seriously. And they do not flagrantly sell out their country to improve their chances of reelection.
President Trump’s impeachment is richly deserved. We hold no illusions that Senate Republicans will follow the correct course of action, which would be to convict. But, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, native Baltimorean schooled by the sisters at the Institute of Notre Dame, we do not hate them or Mr. Trump for it. We pray for them and for the nation that must witness such wrongdoing be excused by so many who should know so much better.