During the Watergate scandal, my team of prosecutors gave the House a road map to impeachment — a road map that worked to get President Richard Nixon out of office. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, with his long, angry speech about accountability after he had voted to acquit former President Donald Trump, did exactly the reverse. He sent a road map to prosecutors.
I was one of the three trial attorneys for the Watergate obstruction of justice case against Nixon’s top aides. The day our grand jury returned the indictment naming Nixon as a co-conspirator, we gave a briefcase of evidence to the House Judiciary Committee. We called it a road map to impeachment. It meant Congress wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel when we already had more than ample evidence of impeachable offenses uncovered in our criminal investigation.
No way to change minds this time
That road map resulted in the Judiciary Committee approving three articles of impeachment by a bipartisan vote. Then, when we got additional tape recordings months after our original briefcase of evidence, we shared that too — including the “smoking gun” tape on which Nixon and his chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman plotted to use the CIA to stop the FBI from following the money and investigating the $100 bills found on the burglars when they were arrested (cash that could be traced to a Nixon campaign check and would link the burglars directly to Nixon).
That last piece of evidence was the breaking point and ended Republican support for Nixon, who had won reelection in 1972 in a 49-state landslide. The Republican leadership of Congress went to the Oval Office and told Nixon that he would be convicted in the Senate on the articles of impeachment — even before the full House had voted on them. And that was that. He resigned the next day.
When the Trump impeachment trial ended, I wondered if the House managers could have done anything more. Was there any other evidence or witness that could have made the outcome different? I think not.
Within minutes of the acquittal, listening to McConnell, I felt sure I was not hearing him correctly. He had voted “not guilty.” Could he really be admitting just moments later that the House managers had proved their case?
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Yes, McConnell was saying exactly that. He evaded his constitutional responsibility to judge the evidence and then said Trump was guilty. He evaded his constitutional duty as a juror to judge the evidence by saying impeachment was improper once the accused is out of office, even if he was impeached/indicted while he was in office. And then he made clear that he believed, knew, that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”
Then, in a surprise as big as Trump’s big “stolen election” lie (a surprise so unwelcome that Trump issued a statement Tuesday calling McConnell “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack”), the Republican leader said that as a former official, “President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen. Unless the statute of limitations is run, still liable for everything he did while he was in office. Didn’t get away with anything, yet. Yet.” He pointed the way directly to the American criminal and civil justice systems and said “former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”
Old and new legal woes for Trump
With that he did a reverse Watergate road map. He sent a map from Congress to prosecutors, saying the Senate saw the evidence, knew that Trump is guilty of crimes, and should not be allowed to “get away with anything” just because because the Senate, in his view, had no jurisdiction. McConnell made it clear that prosecutors and civil litigation needed to hold Trump accountable for his crimes and civil violations. That is what he meant when he said “not yet.”
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Even before McConnell’s reverse Watergate, there were many criminal and civil cases pending against the former president — from the attorneys general of New York (investigating the Trump Organization’s financial dealings) and Washington, D.C. (a suit charging gross misuse of nonprofit funds to enrich his business and a possible criminal case over Trump’s role in the insurrection), and from district attorneys in Fulton County, Georgia (looking at his attempt to overturn the election) and Manhattan, New York (investigating possible financial crimes). Trump’s niece has sued him for cheating her out of money and two women who accused him of sexual assault have sued him for defamation.
On Tuesday, the NAACP filed a suit against Trump on behalf of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act that prohibits interference with Congress’ constitutional duties. More lawmakers may join it, and more civil cases may be filed by those injured and the families of those who died as a result of the insurrection that Trump incited.
Watergate was a time when democracy worked, bipartisanship existed, and justice prevailed. McConnell’s road map could be our only way to justice and accountability now.
MSNBC legal analyst Jill Wine-Banks, a former assistant Watergate special prosecutor, was the first woman organized crime prosecutor at the Justice Department and the first woman general counsel of the Army. Her book, “The Watergate Girl,” was published last year. Follow her on Twitter: @JillWineBanks