Politics & Policy

Is Impeachment Really “Off the Table”?

Not if you look at what John Conyers has been doing.

In November 1983, Rep. John Conyers and six other Democrats introduced a resolution to impeach President Reagan for his decision to invade Grenada. The invasion was unconstitutional, the resolution charged, because it “usurped Congress’s power to declare war, ignored treaty obligations, and violated First Amendment rights of the public and press in preventing reporters from covering the invasion in its first few days,” in the words of a United Press International report describing the resolution.

“The genius of the Constitution is that it provides for the constitutional remedy of impeachment in the event that the executive arrogates his constitutional duties and oath of office by abrogating powers which, in turn, undermine the integrity of the office,” Conyers said. “After careful study and thought, it is now my position that the president’s recent military actions in Grenada constitute this abrogation of the duties to which he is sworn.”

Conyers is the only one of the seven Democrats who remains in Congress today. (The others were Reps. Ted Weiss, Julian Dixon, Mervyn Dymally, Henry Gonzalez, Mickey Leland, and Parren Mitchell.) If Democrats win control of the House on November 7, Conyers will be in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee, which has the responsibility to initiate bills of impeachment. His possible elevation raises the inevitable question: If John Conyers wanted to impeach Ronald Reagan over Grenada, why wouldn’t he want to impeach George W. Bush over Iraq?

Top Democrats are trying to stop such speculation. “Impeachment is off the table,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who would likely be Speaker of the House if Democrats win, on 60 Minutes Sunday.

“And that’s a pledge?” asked CBS’s Lesley Stahl.

“Well, it’s a pledge in the — yes, I mean, it’s a pledge,” Pelosi said. “Of course it is. It is a waste of time.”

Pelosi’s statement reflects the belief of many Democratic strategists that impeaching the president would have disastrous political consequences for the party. It is conventional wisdom among insiders in both parties that the Clinton impeachment in 1998-1999 was an enormous mistake for Republicans. But after impeaching Clinton, the GOP went on to win control of the House and Senate three more times (so far) and of the White House twice (so far). Impeachment did not exactly cast the party into the political wilderness.

In any event, that kind of definitive, no-impeachment rhetoric is not coming from John Conyers. Instead, Conyers has spent the last several years carefully assembling a case for removing the president. His most recent effort was a 350-page report, released in August, entitled, “The Constitution in Crisis: The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War, and Illegal Domestic Surveillance.” The report never mentioned the word “impeachment,” but Conyers made it clear that he believes the president has committed several impeachable offenses.

“Approximately 26 laws and regulations may have been violated by this administration’s misconduct,” Conyers wrote on the DailyKos and Huffington Post websites the day the report was released. “The report…compiles the accumulated evidence that the Bush administration has thumbed its nose at our nation’s laws, and the Constitution itself.”

Conyers’s accusations were quite specific. On the war in Iraq, for example, he accused Bush of violating four laws: Committing a Fraud Against the United States (18 U.S.C. 371); Making False Statements to Congress (18 U.S.C. 1001); War Powers Resolution (Public Law 93-148); and Misuse of Government Funds (31 U.S.C. 1301).

The fraud committed by the president, Conyers argued, was making the decision to go to war in Iraq before asking Congress for the authority to do so. (The reason for that, Conyers says, was that the president was “avenging [his] father and working with the neo-cons.”) The false statements, according to Conyers, include the president’s mention, in the 2003 State of the Union address, that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Africa. And the violations of the War Powers Resolution and Misuse of Government Funds came when the president moved some military assets to the Gulf region before Congress voted to authorize the war.

Conyers also alleged that the president has broken three other laws, Anti-Torture Statute (18 U.S.C. 2340-40A), The War Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. 2441), and Material Witness (18 U.S.C. 3144), with his policies on the treatment of prisoners in the War on Terror. And then, Conyers alleged that the president broke four more laws, Obstructing Congress (18 U.S.C. 1505), Whistleblower Protection (5 U.S.C. 2302), The Lloyd-LaFollette Act (5 U.S.C. 7211), Retaliating against Witnesses (18 U.S.C. 1513), in the Valerie Plame/CIA leak affair. Finally, Conyers alleged the president broke five more laws, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.), National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. chapter 15), Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 222), Stored Communications Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. 2702), and Pen Registers or Trap and Trace Devices (18 U.S.C. 3121), in the NSA warrantless-wiretap matter.

Reading the report, it seems safe to say that Conyers is not doing all that work on a lark; he quite seriously believes George W. Bush has broken a slew of laws. And any one of Conyers’ specific accusations might serve as the basis for an impeachment resolution. In fact, rather than ask whether Conyers might move to impeach the president if Democrats win in November, it seems more reasonable to ask how Conyers could not move to impeach the president, given the long bill of particulars he has compiled.

At the very least, Conyers’s well-laid groundwork points to a potential conflict between him and Pelosi. She might say impeachment is off the table if Democrats are elected, but we haven’t heard any such declaration from Conyers himself. And what would he say? After all, impeachment is something he’s had in mind for a very long time.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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