“This is unacceptable”: Ex-congresswoman who voted to impeach Nixon says Trump is a rogue president
The public phase of the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump began Wednesday, with testimonies from two witnesses: George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, and William Taylor, a former ambassador and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. The hearing brought forth new details about a previously unknown phone call in July between President Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Both Kent and Taylor expressed concern over the role President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had in dictating U.S. policy on Ukraine. We speak with Elizabeth Holtzman, a former U.S. congressmember from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. congresswoman from New York. She served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. At that time, she was the youngest woman elected to Congress. Interestingly, she was replaced in that record by Congressmember Stefanik, who now serves as a Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and was questioning the speakers yesterday. Liz Holtzman’s recent book is The Case for Impeaching Trump.
Liz Holtzman, welcome back to Democracy Now!
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: It’s great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you find most important about the first day of these public impeachment hearings?
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, the most important thing was that the facts came out in a deliberate, serious way through the mouths of two highly regarded diplomats, who are very experienced and very knowledgeable and who were shocked — they shouldn’t be shocked at their ages, but they were shocked and alarmed at what President Trump was doing. President Trump was withholding military aid from Ukraine in order to help him win the next election, presidential election. And as one of the witnesses said, this is crazy. It’s just crazy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, withholding the aid, the allegation goes, to force them to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and his son.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Correct. And it wasn’t only to investigate his political rival. It was also to investigate whether Ukraine interfered in the election in 2016 instead of Russia. The purpose of this was clearly — even though the intelligence community has unanimously said that it was Russia that intervened in the 2016 election, and even though Mueller has indicted more than 20 people, Russians, for interfering in that election, President Trump believes that it wasn’t Russia — forget the Department of Justice, forget the CIA, forget all the intelligence agencies — it was Ukraine. And this is in order to delegitimize the Mueller investigation, remove the cloud of the Mueller investigation over his head and show him as white and pure going into the next election, as well as getting Biden. That’s the other object here. So, he had two objectives, both of them personal objectives. And the impeachable offense here, the high crime and misdemeanor here, is that the president used the power of his office, withhold or spend money that was appropriated by Congress, not for the good of the United States of America, but for his personal political gain. And that’s exactly what the offense was in the Watergate cover-up.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, during the hearing, Congressman Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, questioned Ambassador William Taylor about a phone call between President Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: I would like to begin by following up on something that you have disclosed today, and you disclosed earlier to both majority and minority, but it is some new information for the committee. You said in your testimony that one of your staff was present with Ambassador Sondland on the day after the July 25th phone call. Is that right?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: That’s correct, Mr. Chairman.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: And as your staff related the event to you, your staff member could overhear Mr. Sondland on the phone — could overhear the president on the phone with Mr. Sondland. Is that right?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: That’s correct.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: So, the president must have been speaking loud enough on the phone — this was a cellphone, I take it?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: It was a cellphone.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: The president must have been speaking loud enough for your staff member to be able to overhear this?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: It was.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: And what your staff member could overhear was President Trump asking Ambassador Sondland about, quote, “the investigations.” Is that right?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: That’s correct.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: Now, I think you testified also that you had come to understand that the term “investigations” was a term that Ambassador Sondland, as well as Volker, used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections and to the investigations of Burisma and the Bidens. Is that correct?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: That is correct, Mr. Chairman.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: So, your staff member overhears the president asking about the investigations, meaning Burisma and the Bidens in 2016, and Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: He did.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF: And I think you said that after the call, when your staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought of Ukraine, his response was that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden. Is that right?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: And Burisma, yes, sir.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Liz Holtzman, your response to the significance of this? I mean, this was new information that was revealed just yesterday in the hearings.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, the information shows something we also saw in Watergate, that the president of the United States, President Trump, just as Richard Nixon, was obsessed with getting these investigations done so that he could get help from Ukraine in his re-election effort. That’s what — and he was directing this. This wasn’t just a one-off, “Oh, maybe we’ll have investigations on…” — just, you know, something that slipped out of his mouth. This is something that he was obsessed with, “he” meaning Trump. Trump wanted Ukraine to clear him of the Mueller investigation reports, and he wanted Ukraine to smear Biden. Those are two things he desperately wanted.
AMY GOODMAN: Liz Holtzman, I want to go back to Nixon. The articles of impeachment that you voted on, that the House Judiciary Committee passed — let’s be clear, Nixon wasn’t impeached, because he quit before he would ultimately be impeached — but were for cover-up of the Watergate break-in and abuse of power.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Correct. And there was a third one: stymieing, refusing to turn over material to the House Judiciary Committee and trying to stymie the impeachment investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask whether this impeachment proceeding will only be limited to, as Nancy Pelosi said, Ukraine. For example, could it go to issues of children dying on the border? And the reason I ask this is, the House Judiciary Committee, under Nixon, did write up articles of impeachment, didn’t they?
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Against Nixon for the secret bombing of Cambodia.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: No, they — I drafted that. That was rejected. But the articles of impeachment about abuse of power went through a litany of things — for example, audits, ordering IRS to do audits of his political opponents. That’s what Nixon did. That was one of the articles of impeachment — that was part of the articles of impeachment. Illegal wiretapping of journalists and his staff members, a break-in into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to look for information to smear him with.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this wasn’t —
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Sound like Ukraine? That was Article II of the impeachment articles. And it also included the abuse of his power to cover up the Watergate break-in.
AMY GOODMAN: And why didn’t these articles of impeachment that you drafted — they didn’t get passed, but the ones about the secret bombing, why weren’t they included?
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: The article about the secret bombing was not included. I voted for it, and a number of others did, but not a majority, because — I don’t really know the answer to that. I’m speculating, but I think it was not adopted because the chair wanted the broadest support possible for the impeachment articles. And this, because the Vietnam War was still so raw and still so — matter of such concern, I think the leadership felt that that was going to be too political, and it would make the rest of the articles seem to be political — in other words, policy-oriented as opposed to abuse of power-oriented. I think that was a mistake, but, anyway, the fact of the matter is that those three articles of impeachment still are historical and still have never really been attacked.
And they are relevant today, because we have Trump stymieing and obstructing the impeachment effort. He’s got no authority to do that, but he is doing that and trying to destroy the balance of — the checks and balances system. The Framers of the Constitution put impeachment into the Constitution to protect our democracy from a rogue president. And he says, “Well, it’s a witch hunt. It’s, you know, not lawful, not right.” That’s what the Framers intended.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering also if a byproduct of this impeachment hearing will be — I mean, you talked about Vietnam, and you were fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam — will be intensifying Cold War ideology, in this way. You have the politics of Ukraine. Poroshenko, the previous president, fiercely opposed to Russia, fighting Russia. Zelensky was just recently elected, overwhelmingly routing, beating Poroshenko, on an appeasement, or, I should say, on a proposal to negotiate with the Russians. And now there is a kind of false history being told of Ukraine, that they need these weapons to fight the Russians — although, Taylor did make the point, not necessarily to fight them, but to be able to negotiate with them from a position of strength. But Zelensky, really, and his — the mogul who supported him, who has recently said — really switched sides, in a sense, saying we should move much more toward Russia, was about negotiating a peace with Russia at this point.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Right, but I think this gets very complicated, because if you stop and think about it, the consequences of what Trump has tried to do by withholding military aid and by trying to force Zelensky to make a public statement about investigating Biden, that would have weakened Zelensky. That would have played directly into Russia’s hands. Also, trying to show that Ukraine was responsible for interfering in the 2016 election would have played directly into Russia’s hands. It would have cleared Russia. So, in a way, you could also look at one of the objectives of Trump here is to help Russia.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, also, could you talk about, Liz Holtzman, what happened during the Nixon impeachment inquiry, what the effect was on the American public? I mean, did it actually sway opinion against him? Because you heard yesterday congressional Republicans again and again dismissing the inquiry, and Trump, of course, repeatedly forever saying it’s a hoax and a witch hunt. His supporters still support him.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Right. And when Nixon left office and resigned, it was still 23% of the American people who supported him, no matter what — I mean, yet.
AMY GOODMAN: And what ultimately forced him out? Because he resigned before he could be impeached —
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: He would have been.
AMY GOODMAN: — by the House and then removed from office by the Senate.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: There’s no question. There is no question. Every Democrat and every Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, including Southern Democrats and the most conservative Republicans —
AMY GOODMAN: How long did it take the Republicans to switch?
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: It took the smoking gun tape. But several — 30% of the Republicans voted for the articles of impeachment before the smoking gun tape came out. And remember one thing that’s really important. Nixon was elected in 1972 in one of the biggest landslides in American history. So, for people to change their minds, that’s what they had to do to support impeachment, because most Americans had voted for him. By the time we finished our work, most Americans wanted him removed from office. Why? Because they saw a fair process. They saw a deliberative process. They saw a process based on solid evidence. And in the end, the American people said — not everybody, but 77% of Americans said, “We are not a banana republic. We are — what’s more important to us is the rule of law than anything else, than the president, than a party.”
And I hope that we can come to that conclusion now, that more important than Donald Trump, more important than the Republican Party, more important than any party or any president, is the rule of law. And that has to be obeyed here. And the president basically says, “I’m president. Article II means I can do whatever I want. Article II means I can help use all the government powers to win my next election.” So, what he’s doing: violating the Constitution, impinging on our free election system. And that’s what Watergate was about. Nixon wanted to get re-elected at any cost. That’s why there was the break-in. That was the break-in into the Democratic national headquarters by his campaign people, and the cover-up was related to his re-election effort. “Use the government powers,” said Nixon, “to get what I need for my re-election.” What’s Donald Trump doing? Using the powers of government to get re-elected. This is unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much, Liz Holtzman, for being with us, former U.S. congresswoman from New York, served on the House Judiciary Committee that led to the vote for impeachment against Richard Nixon, her recent book titled The Case for Impeaching Trump.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we had south to Chile. Stay with us.