Watergate Prosecutors Argue For Trump Impeachment NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer talks to two former Watergate special prosecutors, Richard Ben-Veniste and Philip Lacovara, about their op-ed on mounting evidence for President Trump's impeachment.


Watergate Prosecutors Argue For Trump Impeachment

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We're going to continue the conversation now by focusing on the question of impeachment. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out this week, a slim majority of Americans - 52% - say they approve of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. In a Washington Post op-ed this week, 17 former Watergate prosecutors added their voices to the mix. In a column titled, we investigated the Watergate scandal. We believe Trump should be impeached, they laid out their arguments for impeachment. All 17 of them are former members of the Justice Department's nonpartisan special prosecutor team, and two of them who signed that article are with me to talk about it. Richard Ben-Veniste was a special prosecutor during Watergate and later served on the 9/11 Commission.

Richard, welcome.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Glad to be here.

PFEIFFER: And Philip Lacovara served as counsel to the Watergate special prosecutor and has since been deputy solicitor general of the United States and president of the Washington, D.C., bar.

Philip, welcome to you, too.

PHILIP LACOVARA: Thank you very much.

PFEIFFER: Would you begin by laying out the arguments you made in the piece about why you think there's already enough evidence that Trump committed impeachable offenses? And Philip Lacovara, would you start?

LACOVARA: Yes. We concluded that the concept of high crimes and misdemeanors, which is the constitutional standard for impeachment, is satisfied by what is - or appears to be satisfied by what's already on the public record in at least three categories. The first is the president's disregard for the national security of the United States and of an ally, Ukraine, by conditioning military aid to Ukraine on doing his political bidding in anticipation of the 2020 election. The second is his obstruction of justice as detailed in the evidence compiled by special counsel Bob Mueller. And thirdly, the repeated deliberate frustration of legitimate oversight by Congress by refusing to provide documents and instructing witnesses not to testify.

PFEIFFER: Richard, do you want to add anything?

BEN-VENISTE: Yes. I think the finding that we made that there was compelling prima facie evidence that President Trump has committed impeachable offenses...

PFEIFFER: And could you define that for people who didn't go to law school - prima facie?

BEN-VENISTE: It means that on its face, there exists sufficient evidence to conclude that those acts - which were very similar to those involved in the Nixon impeachment - have substantial merit in terms of beginning the impeachment process.

PFEIFFER: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been clear about wanting a narrow impeachment strategy focused on the Ukraine scandal. Given what you've laid out in this piece, do you think the House's inquiry should be expanded? And Philip, why don't you take that one?

LACOVARA: Well, we say that there are three possible clusters of events that warrant impeachment, as Richard said, because there seems to be on the public record sufficient evidence of them. Each of them in our view, as this statement reflects, warrant attention by the House of Representatives as potential grounds for impeachment. We recognize that the House will have to make the determination of what it believes the facts are and make a judgment about which, if any, actually merit impeachment. But in our view, there are independent reasons why each of these is important.

PFEIFFER: So you and 15 of your former Watergate prosecutor colleagues believe there are impeachable offenses already. But how much does that or should that involve public opinion? Meaning, does the House process include trying to get the public on board with what Congress is pursuing?

BEN-VENISTE: I agree that that's an essential part of the process. And that's why it is necessary for us to consider what happened in Watergate. There, the president refused to cooperate with legitimate process to obtain evidence. President Nixon hid that evidence. He obscured the true facts until the Supreme Court forced him at our request to divulge those tapes.

Here, the president is going even further. He has delegitimized the process. He has claimed that this is a witch hunt and that this is some sort of a coup. It's the exact opposite of a coup. If he has evidence that would refute the prima facie compelling evidence that we laid out in our article, then he should come forward with it.

PFEIFFER: Earlier this week, the White House said it would not cooperate with the House's inquiry. The Trump administration calls it partisan and unconstitutional and says it's an effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election. As members of the special prosecutor team from Watergate, did the two of you experience resistance like that? And what can you do about it?

LACOVARA: (Laughter).

BEN-VENISTE: We experienced resistance to the max.

LACOVARA: Yes. We had resistance from President Nixon up and down the line. Some of your listeners may remember we had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to get the White House tapes, which proved to be the eventual undoing of President Nixon. That Supreme Court decided unanimously that the need for discovery of the truth outweighed the president's claim of privilege. And it was only because they were unanimous that President Nixon had no choice but to turn them over. We don't know exactly what the current Supreme Court would do in light of the change in character.

But one of the key points here, as we indicated in our op-ed, is that the stonewalling of requests for information was a separate article of impeachment that had been voted against President Nixon. And we think that that's an ample precedent for dealing with stonewalling by President Trump.

PFEIFFER: So if the president, as he is often saying - we're not going to turn over documents. We're not going to respond to subpoenas. We're not going to allow administration officials to be deposed. Can he do that? Can he simply say no without penalty?

LACOVARA: Well, the penalty is in the perception of the public as to why he's doing this. And unless Americans put aside their party affiliation, their loyalties to subgroups and act as patriotic Americans in protecting the Constitution, he might get away with it. But the ultimate result will be the presumption that he's hiding something important.

PFEIFFER: Richard Ben-Veniste and Phillip Locavara are both former members of the Justice Department's special prosecutor team that investigated Watergate.

Thanks to both of you.

LACOVARA: Thank you.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

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