Dec. 18 will mark one year since the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump.
Looking back, what happened “behind the scenes” of the impeachment proceedings? Fred Lucas, the chief national affairs correspondent for The Daily Signal and author of “Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump,” joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss it.
We also cover these stories:
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to former Vice President Joe Biden as “president-elect” for the first time on Tuesday.
- The Supreme Court voted to protect religious groups on Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by faith-based organizations in New Jersey and Colorado that sought relief from coronavirus restrictions.
- After review of Federal Election Commission records, Fox News reported that Facebook and Twitter executives donated tens of thousands of dollars to Biden’s campaign, many of them giving the legal maximum of $2,800.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by one of my colleagues at The Daily Signal, Fred Lucas. He’s the chief national affairs correspondent for The Daily Signal. Fred, it’s great to be with you on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Fred Lucas: Thanks for having me on.
Del Guidice: It’s great to have you with us, Fred. So, Dec. 18 marks the one-year anniversary since the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump. And you wrote a book about the impeachment process and all the proceedings called “Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump.” Can you start off, Fred, by just telling us about the book?
Lucas: It really began, basically, the day after President Trump was elected in November 2016. There was this movement to get rid of him as soon as possible without the benefit of an election, which we just had. But it moves on to tell the story, basically, how the Russia emoluments, other things just sort of collapsed.
And so this phone call with Ukraine sort of managed to do two things. It sort of managed to set up a template for impeachment, but also protect [former Vice President] Joe Biden’s candidacy.
Del Guidice: Can you talk a little bit about, first, before we get to the Ukraine phone call, and I want you to address that, but you had mentioned that before any of this happened, basically the push to impeach Trump started right after the President Trump took the oath of office.
So can you talk about that? And then what led into how the Ukraine phone call was basically, as you put it, the template used to impeach the president?
Lucas: Yeah. Sure. So one of the big things right after his election is, it’s explained in “Abuse of Power,” that [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren sponsored a bill, and a lot of her Democratic colleagues actually signed onto it, that essentially said Trump must divest of all of his business assets or it would be a high crime or misdemeanor. …
She was trying to set an impeachment trap. He either does this or he will meet the legal qualification for being impeached. That law did not pass, but that’s something that Democrats did push for.
Once he took office, they began pushing for emoluments, both domestic and foreign emoluments, that he had to get rid of all his investments and so forth. That pretty well faded and they concentrated on the Russia investigation. They pounded away at that. Got a special counsel. [Robert] Mueller came up empty on that in the end.
And that was frustrating for a lot of Democrats. They thought that maybe they could try to cling to that and say that Trump obstructed the investigation somehow. But then this phone call almost threw them a bone.
It probably wasn’t a perfect call, as Trump characterized it, but it also was not really a high crime or misdemeanor, but this was something that Democrats were able to cling to. They were able to frame it as a national security issue. And they were able to claim that he was somehow going after the Bidens in a way that was inappropriate.
Which, largely, if you actually look at some of the coverage that was out there, there were stories in The Washington Post and The New Yorker and The New York Times, Politico about Hunter Biden and his Burisma deal. There was a Washington Post story too, actually, just a couple of days before the July 25, 2019, phone call.
Considering that we know Trump consumes a lot of media it’s almost hard to imagine that in the process of talking to the Ukrainian president, he wouldn’t bring up the Hunter Biden issue.
So this was turned into some sort of crime and Democrats at one point, they tried to say it was bribery, but they couldn’t really figure out whether the Ukrainian president was bribing Trump or Trump was bribing [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy.
Extortion didn’t really go anywhere. So they finally settled on two charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, neither of which are actual statutory crimes. I say in the book “Abuse of Power” that probably makes this the weakest presidential impeachment in American history.
Del Guidice: In the book, Fred, you talk about how California Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,] pushed Jerry Nadler, [chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,] out of the key spot to lead the impeachment. What did this accomplish?
Lucas: It has traditionally been the Judiciary Committee that handles impeachment, at least going back to the Nixon impeachment hearings. [Former President Richard] Nixon, of course, resigned before he was impeached, but the Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment.
Judiciary handled the Clinton impeachment. So it was assumed that Nadler would handle this. However, Schiff really wanted a piece of this action and he became more close to [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi. This was according to the sources I interviewed for the book “Abuse of Power.”
And Nancy Pelosi was also not happy with how Nadler handled some of the investigative hearings, particularly the hearing with Mueller. She felt like he was just rolled in that. Also, Corey Lewandowski, there was a hearing there, and basically that was strike two, was enough for Pelosi to want to get rid of Nadler and mostly minimize his role in any impeachment.
The Intelligence Committee came and essentially commandeered the impeachment process. They ruled out all the witnesses. They referred a report then to the Judiciary Committee. Basically, had a couple of days of hearings from a few lawyers, but no one directly involved in the matter. That was a very minimal role, almost a token role. They were throwing Jerry Nadler a bone.
But once it moved into the Senate trial, Pelosi named Schiff as basically the leader of the impeachment managers. Nadler wasn’t even really a co-captain. He was just a one member among others.
And we saw this play out quite comical … at one point in which Nadler rushed to the microphone to answer a question during the Senate trial, as Schiff kept saying, “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry,” trying to get him back to the table. So, I mean, yeah, there’s clearly a rivalry between those two.
Del Guidice: Something else you raised in the book that you mentioned very briefly at the beginning of our conversation is that the size of the Russia collusion narrative and some of the other narratives for impeachment, another reason for impeachment, as you briefly talked about, happened to coincide with the key political interests protecting Joe Biden’s candidacy. Can you talk more about this, Fred, and how this came into play?
Lucas: Sure. It was Joe Biden and, as I mentioned, there was some coverage already of Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma, how he’s working there for this energy company in Ukraine, having had no experience in energy, no real experience in foreign affairs. However, this was something that he was making quite a bit of money and cashing in on his father’s name here.
And it also ties back to this issue where, up to a certain point, some mainstream media outlets were covering the fact that Joe Biden, what he had said about firing the prosecutor or the Ukraine would not get a certain amount of aid from the Obama administration.
The prosecutor was, at the time, of course, looking into Burisma and Hunter Biden. This reflected poorly on Joe Biden. So it was rather convenient that they were able to shift this narrative completely, turn it around from a Biden scandal to a Trump scandal.
Del Guidice: Another key player in the impeachment proceedings was former FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the supposed Russia collusion investigation. What is your perspective, Fred, of Comey and how did things change for impeachment when Trump fired him on May 9, 2017?
Lucas: Well, that was something for a while Democrats were pushing to try to impeach Trump for that. That was one of the many, many rationales. I mentioned emoluments in Russia along the way. There were multiple rationales throughout this.
At one point, [they] wanted to impeach him for firing James Comey, claiming that he was obstructing an investigation. At another point, they wanted him to impeach him over the various issue on Stormy Daniels even. And then none of those really captured any level of public support.
I wouldn’t say that the Ukraine issue really carried that much public support. The Democrats worked with focus groups to try to develop what would be the best way to promote the impeachment to the public. And they had a hard time even getting this across to mostly Democratic focus groups at the time.
Del Guidice: Well, we all know that Trump was not impeached by the Senate. What did or did not all those impeachment hearings and efforts accomplish?
Lucas: Well, I will tell you, Trump apparently looks as if he lost the election. I think that had a lot more to do with COVID and other issues than anything to do with the impeachment.
The impeachment, I think the goal there was to do maximum damage to him going into 2020. But if you look at how this worked out, and how it shook out, Trump’s approval rating shot up to almost that elusive 50% during the impeachment. The public sort of sided with him during that. Didn’t really approve of a House impeachment.
And if you look, even though Trump lost, apparently, I should say, the House Democrats that voted to impeach him did not do well at all this year.
Joe Biden had almost no coattails. We saw a massive number of Democrats lose House seats. And a lot of those were Democrats who ran in red and purple districts claiming that they were going to Washington to get things done. And they didn’t want to impeach Trump.
People sort of remember that promise later on, and when these Democrats running in moderate districts said, “We’re not going to support the new deal or defunding police,” well, those voters said, “Well, you said you weren’t going to impeach Trump either.” And those Democrats lost their seats. So, I think it’s hard to say that Democrats were winners in this whole process.
Del Guidice: Looking back, Fred, now that this is a year behind us, what is your perspective on how Republicans specifically handled the whole impeachment saga?
Lucas: Republicans pretty well stuck together. Even if you look at the House vote, very partisan, but you did have four Democrats [that] broke on at least one impeachment charge and voted against that.
Republicans, then once it made it to the Senate, well, [Sen.] Mitt Romney did break with the Republicans, but there [was] a lot of built-up personal animosity between Trump and Mitt Romney going back a way.
So I think for the most part, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell gave a speech on the Senate floor, right before the Senate vote, in which he talked about, this was sort of an attack on institutions from the left.
And I think a lot of people might’ve seen it that way because this was really, however you want to look at the Clinton impeachment, a lot of people kind of roll their eyes about that because it had to do with his personal affair, but ultimately it was about an actual crime or actual two crimes, perjury and obstruction of justice, going all the way back to the first presidential impeachment, Andrew Johnson.
A lot of historians have been dismissive of that. However, that was even about a duly enacted law that violated … the Tenure of Office Act. Now, that law was later ruled unconstitutional by the courts. But at the time it was in effect. And the House Republicans impeached him over it. And, of course Richard Nixon, that was almost an impeachment. There were clear crimes in that.
This is really the first and only impeachment of a president [that] did not involve any allegation of an actual crime but these pretty vague statements that are abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. And those are two things that could apply to almost any president.
That’s the real danger going forward, when you pose a danger [to] the constitutional government, when you have these types of very vague charges that could be applied by any Congress, any house of the opposite party of the president going forward because you’ve lowered the bar so much.
Del Guidice: Well, Fred, what should Democrats and Republicans learn from this whole impeachment saga going into this next year and, just in general, when it comes to politics, given that so much happened in this effort to impeach Donald Trump?
Lucas: One point I make repeatedly throughout the book “Abuse of Power”: Congressional oversight is entirely a credible thing. You should have the legislative branch closely watching the executive branch. And through the course of that, you’ll have some, probably, firebrands on either side constantly calling for impeachment.
But impeachment is something that really needs to be a last resort. … I actually even outline the parameters of an impeachment in the book “Abuse of Power,” which it should really be when a president demonstrably committed a crime or a series of crimes or in lieu of actual crime, it should be something that is somehow a threat to the country. And clearly this phone call with Zelenskyy, that did not meet any of those things
Del Guidice: Fred, as we wrap up, are there any other topics or points you’d like to touch on as we’re just weeks away from 2021?
Lucas: Well, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess I’d maybe even follow up on that saying going into the next administration that Congress should be very, even aggressive, I think, in terms of congressional oversight of the president and executive branch, but it should tread carefully when you get into the area of impeachment.
And I think it has become almost, in some ways, too easy because they realize there’s not going to be a removal of a president. So impeachment is sort of seen as a super censor of sorts, but that could just lead to a lot of problems, super polarization, and things will never get done under that sentence.