Witcover: Chatter about impeachment is premature

Donald Trump's early stumbling out of the presidential gate in the judicial, legislative and diplomatic realms has already surfaced talk by wishful thinkers of invoking the constitutional route of impeachment to remove him from the Oval Office for committing "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Liberal Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe has fed the notion in a Washington Post opinion piece. He cites the same charges of "obstruction of justice" that were part of the undoing of President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of 1972-73, comparing them to Mr. Trump's situation in his swift and impulsive firing of FBI Director James Comey.


The charges against Nixon were pending in the House of Representatives after long congressional committee hearings, and the Senate was poised to vote to convict when senior Republican leaders, including Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. John Rhodes, both of Arizona, personally told him the jig was up, and he resigned.

Nixon's public disgrace was rendered no less painful by resigning. He retreated into a California sanctuary before finally emerging in a years-long attempt to salvage his reputation, at least in the foreign policy arena. He became a prolific author, but he never was readmitted to the heart of his Republican Party and was never invited to a subsequent national political convention.


Only two other presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1867 and Bill Clinton in 1998, were impeached by the House, and each was acquitted in a Senate trial. Johnson was charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act in firing Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson was saved by a single vote in the Senate.

Mr. Clinton escaped the guilty charge when the Senate Democratic majority held its collective nose against his unsavory sexual exploits and kept the vote short of the required two-thirds to convict him. He remained in office through his second term.

Now Mr. Tribe cites the Comey firing as "an obvious effort to interfere with a probe involving national security matters vastly more serious than the "third-rate burglary" that Nixon tried to cover up in Watergate. The question of Russian interference in the presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign goes to the heart of our system and ability to conduct free and fair elections."

Mr. Tribe also mocks Mr. Trump's "phony justifications" for the firing, such as the pretext that Mr. Comey had botched the handling of Hillary Clinton's incriminating emails during the 2016 campaign, and the way Mr. Trump used the supposedly recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his acting fill-in Rod Rosenstein and Vice President Mike Pence to help sell his case.

Regarding Mr. Clinton's impeachment, Mr. Tribe argues that "the ostensible obstruction consisted solely in lying under oath about a sordid sexual affair that may have sullied the Oval Office but involved no abuse of presidential power as such."

The Nixon case, however, "reads like a forecast of what Trump would do decades later," Mr. Tribe writes, "making misleading statements to, or withholding material evidence from, federal investigators or other federal employees; trying to interfere with FBI or congressional investigations; dangling carrots in front of people who might otherwise pose trouble for one's hold on power."

Mr. Tribe doesn't get into another avenue for removing Mr. Trump — the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967. It provides that if the vice president and a majority of the president's Cabinet declare in writing that a president is unable "to discharge the powers and duties of his office," Congress by a two-thirds vote can remove him in favor of the vice president who has been serving as acting president.

In his absence, the House Speaker, currently Paul Ryan, would assume the presidency, followed by the Senate Pro Tem, Orrin Hatch of Utah. In any case, if the president were to certify his ability to resume his office, he would do so. Short of any such certification, he could also resign, as only Nixon has done to date.


But as for Donald Trump, it would be hard to imagine this man of huge self-esteem leaving the Oval Office voluntarily. So if the foes of the incumbent hope to remove him, they likely would encounter a difficult road ahead of them. In 1975, enough fellow Republicans threw in the sponge on Nixon. Would enough of today's timid GOP crew eventually do the same in the days ahead?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is

Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested that the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment against him, but he resigned before they were considered by the full House.