The House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump has broken so dramatically with precedent that some wonder whether it constitutes an impeachment effort at all.
In the past, such proceedings — against Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — were treated with solemnity and regard for the American people of both parties.
They were initiated by a vote of the full House of Representatives, recognizing that, under the Constitution, the House impeaches, not just the political faction in control. Since overruling the votes of the people for president is wrenching and divisive, it was always regarded as a big deal.
As the Judiciary Committee noted in its Oct. 7, 1998, report to the House regarding the impeachment of President Clinton, after an independent counsel found he had committed perjury and obstructed justice: "Because the issue of impeachment is of such overwhelming importance, the Committee decided that it must receive the authorization from the full House before proceeding on any further course of action. Because impeachment is delegated solely to the House of Representatives by the Constitution, the full House of Representatives should be involved in critical decision making regarding various stages of impeachment."
In addition, the committee made clear that the president had rights in that process: "The President and his counsel shall be invited to attend all executive session and open committee hearings. The President’s counsel may cross examine witnesses. The President’s counsel may make objections regarding the pertinency of evidence … the President or the President’s counsel shall be invited to respond to the evidence adduced by the Committee at an appropriate time. The provisions will ensure that the impeachment inquiry is fair to the President."
Furthermore, members of the president’s party had power to issue subpoenas for witnesses.
Due process, including the right to a defense and to confront one’s accusers, is the very essence of American justice.
The process under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been radically different. She has refused to hold a vote. A committee is holding secret meetings in the basement of the Capitol, bringing in witnesses selected only by Democrats. Neither the American people nor the president’s counsel is permitted to attend. Selective leaks are being issued. In some ways, the process has more the air of a Soviet procedure than an American one.
We endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and find President Trump unfit for his high office. But, in opposing him, it is important that we not dispense with American ideals or undermine our republic. (For similar reasons, we oppose junking the Electoral College or packing the Supreme Court.) We will need our republic after Trump is gone. We don’t want one-sided tactics used against future presidents to overturn the will of voters.
While the daily drumbeat of impeachment in the news may be driving down Mr. Trump’s poll numbers — polls differ — it remains unlikely a Republican Senate will provide the two-thirds vote to remove him from office. This process could end up solidifying support for Trump in his base while turning off moderate voters, weakening rather than strengthening Democratic prospects in 2020.
But if the House must impeach, it should follow established precedent.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the Providence (R.I.) Journal.