Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives investigating President Donald Trump for possible impeachment are facing a conundrum.
Should they push for a relatively narrow set of charges similar to the articles of impeachment that were brought against Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998? Or should they look further back into history and use the sweeping 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson as a model?
Johnson, America’s 17th president and the first to be impeached by the House, faced no fewer than 11 articles of impeachment voted by an opposition party that was just as livid with his post-Civil War policies as today's Democrats are angry with Trump’s agenda.
In Trump's case, the central allegation is that the president held up nearly $400 million in military aid over the summer to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Trump’s Democratic rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Although Trump denies allegations of a corrupt quid pro quo, Democrats say the scheme amounted to just that and is grounds for possible impeachment.
With House investigators still taking testimony from key witnesses, including Acting Ambassador William Taylor on Tuesday, Democratic chairs of congressional investigative committees are not publicly discussing likely articles of impeachment.
But behind closed doors, they’ve started debating possible charges, including an overarching abuse of power offense, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing for a “targeted and easy-to-communicate” case that is focused on Ukraine, according to NBC News.
The discussions suggest the Democrats have moved in the span of a few short weeks from deciding whether to impeach the president to considering what charges to bring against him.
In a document that provides a foretaste of the Democratic impeachment arguments, Pelosi on Monday highlighted Trump's alleged "shakedown" and "pressure campaign" on Ukraine, repeatedly casting the president's actions as abuse of power. The four-page fact sheet copiously cites from the rough transcript of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, a whistleblower complaint about the scheme, text messages exchanged between diplomats, and recent congressional testimonies.
“My read of the fact sheet is that there is at least a significant faction within the House Democrats who want to focus specifically on Ukraine as a way of narrowing the articles of impeachment so as to keep the investigation simple, straightforward, and in many respects, clear cut,” said James Sample, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives has the power to impeach a president and other senior officials with “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors," while largely undefined, is widely understood to refer to serious misdeeds such as abuse of office for personal gain.
To formally impeach a president, a majority of House members must approve articles of impeachment. Similar to a criminal indictment, articles of impeachment lay out the facts and make a case for impeaching the president on individual counts. Once the charges are approved, the Senate conducts a trial to determine guilt or innocence — and whether to oust the president.
In some ways, the current impeachment standoff is analogous to the showdown between Johnson and the “Radical Republicans” who controlled Congress in the aftermath of the American Civil War, according to Frank Bowman, a law professor at the University of Missouri and author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump."
The 11 articles of impeachment stemmed from Johnson’s decision to fire his secretary of war in defiance of an act of Congress that forbade the president from dismissing federal officials without the Senate’s consent. But the violation was a “pretext” for the Republicans’ ultimately unsuccessful attempt to oust Johnson, according to Bowman.
“The real dispute was that they had fundamentally conflicting ideas about what the constitutional future of the country ought to be,” Bowman said. “One can imagine a similar kind of fight in this case where I suspect there are going to be some Democrats who want to have at least some kind of catch-all that allows consideration of what they think are a wide variety of misbehavior by Mr. Trump.”
To Trump’s staunchest critics, the president’s list of impeachable misdeeds is a lengthy one and runs the gamut, from violations of the Constitution’s “emoluments clause” to obstruction of justice in connection with the Russian election meddling probe to abuse of power in the Ukraine scandal. One frequent critic, Amy Goodman, host of the current affairs show "Democracy Now," considers Trump’s climate policy as an impeachable offense.
While placating many on the left, adding the emoluments clause violations and other charges risks making the process time-consuming and unwieldy, Sample said. Trump faces two lawsuits for violations of the constitutional measure that forbids U.S. officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments.
“I think the Democrats are faced with a crisis of complexity, which is to say that if all of the possible bases to pursue articles of impeachment against Donald Trump would be simultaneously pursued and investigated, the American people, particularly in an election year, might find the complexity overwhelming,” Sample said.
It is a scenario that Democratic leaders seem intent on avoiding. While insisting that the emoluments clause and other potential charges are not off the table, they say they remain focused on Ukraine.
“Right now, the focus is on Ukraine with what we think is a very clearly demonstrable quid pro quo,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday. “Most people think that’s a quid pro quo. That decision has not been made — that will be made by the committee, by determination.”
The result is likely to be a narrow set of charges similar to the three-count impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee against Nixon in the Watergate scandal, according to Bowman.
VOA's Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.