The first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon detailed his cover-up of the Watergate break-in, listing nine incriminating things the president and his henchmen did. Numbers four and eight are particularly relevant to this moment in history, some forty-three years later, though others may soon be as well: "interfering or endeavouring to interfere" with FBI, Department of Justice, and congressional investigations; and "making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States."
"In all of this," the article continues, "Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States."
Last week, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, whose agency is investigating ties between Trump associates and Russian operatives who interfered in last year's election on Trump's behalf. Trump initially claimed—both through spokespeople and in a letter to Comey—that he acted on the recommendation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, and that Comey's fatal error had been his handling of the Hillary Clinton email case.
A quick word about that: Comey's press conference about the Clinton case last summer and his October letter to Congress, which probably cost Clinton the election, were inexcusable breaches of protocol. But if you think that's why Trump did it, I've got a bridge to sell you.
Indeed, the White House's transparent lie fell apart within forty-eight hours. And with it crumbled the last shred of pretense that Donald Trump has the mental or moral capacity to handle the office he holds.
First came deeply sourced reporting that the real reason behind Comey's termination was that Trump had grown enraged by Comey's refusal to both make the Russia investigation go away and back up his unfounded charge that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. Then came reports that the FBI investigation was intensifying and that Comey last week requested additional resources. Finally, there was Trump's own admission, to NBC's Lester Holt, that "regardless of recommendation," he was going to sack Comey, a contradiction of his own letter.
In that interview, Trump also admitted that he didn't deem Russian interference worthy of investigation anyway: "And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.'"
Then Trump told Holt that Comey had asked for a dinner in which Comey sought to keep his job and assured Trump that he was not under investigation. No sooner had this interview aired than Comey's camp hit back, telling The New York Times that Trump had called the meeting and demanded that Comey pledge fealty to Trump; Comey demurred, associates told the Times, and no, Comey wouldn't have given Trump any such assurances. The next morning, Trump took to—where else?—Twitter, threatening Comey, a likely witness in congressional hearings: "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
Long story short: it's apparent that the president fired the FBI director because he deemed the FBI director insufficiently loyal and didn't like how an FBI investigation into his associates was proceeding. From here, that looks a whole lot like obstruction of justice. And the interview with Holt isn't smoke—it's a raging forest fire.
At minimum, it's evident that Jeff Sessions's Department of Justice is compromised and a special prosecutor must be appointed. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Burr's intelligence committee has finally shown signs of life, subpoenaing documents from ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn and offering Comey a chance to testify in a closed session. (Comey declined, but an associate told the Times he did so because he wants to testify in a public hearing.) The committee also requested documents from a financial intelligence unit of the Treasury Department, which in 2015 slapped the Trump Taj Mahal with a $10 million penalty for violating anti-money-laundering laws.
On Friday, Burr told the INDY that his committee had interviewed about thirty witnesses. But he also promised that he wouldn't let the investigation become a "witch hunt," which is the kind of Washington-speak that makes you wonder if an independent commission will ultimately be necessary to get at the truth.
Regardless, it's already clear that Trump has defiled the presidency. He has obstructed an investigation and lied to the American people. He has all of Nixon's paranoia but none of his competence. He is dangerous and unstable, enabled by partisan hacks who care more about narrow ideological interests than the well-being of their country.
For the sake of the republic—as much today as in 1974—the president must be impeached. As Nixon did, Trump is acting "in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government." And, like Nixon, Trump needs to be driven from office and into ignominy.
Trump is a menace, too vainglorious to recognize his own ignorance and the havoc he is wreaking.
Need further proof of the president's ineptitude? He offers it in spades. On Monday evening, The Washington Post reported that Trump revealed "highly classified information" to top Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting last week. The White House at first denied it, but by Tuesday morning, Trump was on—where else?—Twitter, asserting that he had the authority to share whatever he wanted with whomever he wanted.
Which, legally, is correct. In this instance—as Nixon once put it—when the president does it, it's not illegal.
But that doesn't elide the reality that he took a chainsaw to America's relationships with vital allies in the fight against ISIS to make nice with the very people who interfered in our election to put him in office. And the hypocrisy of the thing is perhaps most stunning: the entirety of Trump's campaign was built around the premise that Hillary Clinton couldn't be trusted with classified information because of her email server. And now this.
The night in 1973 that Nixon orchestrated the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in, Cox issued a statement that rings true today: "Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people."
Congress answered that call four decades ago, and the republic survived. It's up to Congress—and if Congress fails, the American people next year—to answer that call now, to save the republic once again.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Republic, If You Can Keep It."