In Washington, these days, just about every conversation is noun, verb and “impeachment.”
The U.S. House of Representatives is formally exploring making Donald Trump just the fourth president in the country’s 231-year history to face the ultimate congressional rebuke, with members like U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel at the forefront of those investigations.
But not far from Engel’s district, a more recent addition to the New York caucus sees this impeachment talk as nothing new. That’s because U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat has formally been calling for such extreme action against Trump since 2017.
Back then, few were listening to the former state legislator, despite his charges Trump was violating key aspects of the U.S. Constitution, primarily in the way he’s treated the media — which he says violates the First Amendment — and some of the activities later investigated by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
On Monday, however, far more people are taking impeachment seriously, as Espaillat packed a Washington Heights church to hear what’s next in what could likely become a futile effort to remove Trump from office a year before the next general election. But for this particular gathering, Espaillat brought some reinforcements — Elizabeth Holtzman, once the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, who in 1974 joined other Judiciary Committee members in recommending articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.
“Why are we here tonight?” Holtzman asked the crowd. “Because our democracy is in danger. Make no mistake about it. A President of the United States is marshaling the forces of the whole government of the United States to get himself re-elected. He is not willing to trust the voters and our free election system.”
Impeachment talks kicked into high gear in September after details of a call Trump had last summer with Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy were released to the public. In that call, Trump pushed his European counterpart to investigate a Ukranian company and its ties to the family of former vice president Joe Biden. Critics of the call claim Trump threatened military aid for the country if Zelenskiy didn’t help dig up dirt on a likely 2020 political opponent.
Trump has brushed off criticism of the call, saying there was no quid pro quo. However, Democrats — and even some intelligence officials inside the Trump administration — have claimed the simple act of soliciting help from a foreign leader to interfere in a domestic election violates law.
Whether Trump is ultimately found to have broken the law, however, is immaterial to any impeachment action, Holtzman said.
“You don’t need the president to commit a crime to be impeached,” she said. “You don’t need a violation of any criminal law to be impeached. We don’t have to prove that he committed a crime. The crime is a political crime against our democracy, not a crime against our criminal code.”
Trump only has one year left in office, and polling in recent months have shown support for the president eroding at the ballot box. That have prompted some question about whether Congress should pursue impeachment at all, and just let voters decide in 2020.
“This is more about the Constitution, and the oath of office, and our responsibilities as duly elected members of an independent branch of government,” Espaillat said. “We don’t take this lightly. It is our duty and our responsibility not to leave this moment for other folks.”
Espaillat sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Engel — one of three committee chairs House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tasked with gathering evidence for a possible impeachment. The various committees have demanded members of the Trump administration to appear before them, and Espaillat warned any attempts by those government officials to avoid their time in front of Congress will only make things worse for the White House.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo already has claimed Congress is “harassing” people inside the State Department, but is reportedly negotiating with those same leaders to release documents the committees have subpoenaed. However, the morning after Espaillat’s Washington Heights meeting, Pompeo prohibited European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland from testifying and releasing documents to Congress.
Engel — along with fellow impeachment-related chairs Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings — immediately declared that prohibition an “obstruction of the impeachment process.”
Such obstruction could end up among the articles of impeachment against the president, Espaillat said. But there is another option as well: contempt.
In fact, Holtzman told Espaillat he should push to modify the House rules when it comes to contempt of congress, imposing a fine of $25,000 per day.
“They go to court, they lose, they have to pay the fine,” the former congresswoman said. “There’s a penalty for them, and not everybody can afford $25,000 a day.”
How long the country will be tied up with impeachment is anyone’s guess. The first impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868 was the culmination of a year of fights between his administration and Congress. A year passed between the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973 to fire a special prosecutor and Nixon’s resignation in the face of impeachment.
For Bill Clinton, Congress didn’t vote to impeach until four years after appointing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate the president’s involvement in an Arkansas land deal.
This process against Trump is a lot different, however, Espaillat said. The report from a White House whistleblower severely damaged the president’s standing — and those claims were later corroborated from a non-verbatim transcript of the call later released by the Trump administration.
The process is moving quickly, and could be over before the end of the year.
“We hope to be done by Thanksgiving,” Espaillat said. “That is our goal. Anywhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”