Democratic members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are launching a formal impeachment inquiry over a conversation between President Donald Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
The conversation at the center of the controversy involves Trump asking Zelensky to look into allegations connected to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Former Congressman Lee Hamilton represented Indiana as a Democrat for more than 30 years, including during the impeachment proceedings of former President Bill Clinton. WTIU/WFIU’s Tyler Lake sat down with Hamilton to discuss the current impeachment hearings through the lens of his decades of political experience. Hamilton is now a distinguished scholar at Indiana University's Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, which bears his name.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Tyler Lake: Why is this the incident that moved many congressional leaders to jump in on impeachment hearings?
Lee Hamilton: I think this incident was clear, understandable, not so complicated – this president being accused of interfering with our election processes with another country. So I think it was the clarity of the abuse, if you would, and the immediacy of it that caught people. These things have a way of building up too, and this triggered the events.
Lake: What do you think backroom calculus was with officials like Speaker Pelosi who had held out with impeachment hearings prior to this incident, to move forward now?
Hamilton: Removing a president from office, he’s been elected by the people, taking him out of office and saying you can no longer serve, that’s a very serious matter. You are going against the express will of the American people. No one treads into that area lightly. So I think the calculations on the part of all of the politicians is not just politics, 'How am I going to benefit from this or not benefit from it.' I think they realize this is not an ordinary political issue.
This is really serious stuff, really serious. You know, we have only impeached two presidents, we have not convicted either one of them, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. It just doesn’t happen. As you look at the impeachment process, what strikes you is how many questions are unresolved with regard to just simple process.
What’s the standard of proof, what does high crimes and misdemeanors mean? It doesn’t have a very clear definition. And what comes across to me, talking about impeachment, is you are not really talking about a set legal process. You are talking about a political process and you kind of make the rules as you go forward in a sense, because these are rare events in American history.
Lake: Some Republicans are calling this a partisan witch hunt. When you look at this as someone with a strong grasp of international politics and who knows how the game of politics is played, does this seem to be about misconduct at the highest levels of government rather than a partisan issue?
Hamilton: You cannot make easy judgements about the motivations of other people. What I am saying is, I would like to see is our public officials pull back from being a politician on this kind of an issue and look at it as the country’s future is at stake. This is not an ordinary political issue; I want them to understand the seriousness of the charge. Their frame of mind should be, 'What are the facts?'
Let’s understand the evidence. What happens now is you have all these charges against the president that have been building really even before he took office. There have been a lot of attacks on President Trump. He mentions that not infrequently and with good reason. 'What are the facts?' has to be the central question for the legislators at this point. That sounds like an easy question, but it’s not. It’s really hard. And you are operating as I suggested in an ill-defined area.
So you don’t really know what facts are the basis for impeachment or not. I think the core point is, this is a political charge and you have to look at the question, was there an abuse of high office? Did this conduct revolt us? So that a person in high office simply ought not to do those things.
Lake: If this had been something that had been done domestically as opposed to having spoken to a foreign leader about it, does that change this discussion?
Hamilton: I think it does change it, it’s a very different act. Presidents have a lot of power and they can direct the FBI to investigate, they should be able to do that, and others in high positions of responsibility.
So I don’t find that an abuse of power, but in this instance I think it’s clear that the pattern of conduct by this president has raised so many questions about violating from law, from norms of performance by a president, that in the minds of a lot of the people it’s serious enough to consider impeachment.
Lake: What would you say to our Senators and Congressmen from the state of Indiana about how they should be handling this?
Hamilton: I’d say take off your partisan hat, do away with partisan label. Focus on the conduct of the president, what he did and what he did not do. Make up your mind. Is this serious enough conduct so that he should be removed from office? Now there’s all kinds of bad conduct that would not measure up to that kind of an inquiry. But in this case, I’d make a real plea to any legislator to try to be as impartial as possible.
Now, politicians are politicians and I am not naïve about this, but I do think you ought to make a real effort here to look at what the president actually did. Was that an abuse of his power? Was that an abuse of high office? In my opinion, the answer is yes. But I have my own biases, I don’t pretend to know it all.
If I were a member of the House I would vote to indict the president, if I were a member of the Senate I would vote to convict him. That’s my personal view, others can clearly disagree with that. I think the President’s conduct has been beyond the pale and beyond what I think an officer, high officer of the United States government should do.
Lake: You’ve seen an impeachment hearing up close. Can you talk about how this, at the stage it’s at now, compares to what happened with the Clinton impeachment hearings?
Hamilton: I think the big difference is, the charges against Bill Clinton were serious, but they were largely related to personal conduct, his misbehavior if you would, with Monica Lewinsky and women in general. The charges against Trump are not charges about his personal life, whether he told the truth on this matter or that matter. But they are charges against actions he took – calling the Ukrainian authorities for example – that are in line with his official duties, and that’s a huge difference in my view.
Lake: Could these impeachment hearings backfire for the Democrats?
Hamilton: I can’t predict the future and how these things will impact on the American electorate. Are there risks? Yes, of course. Trump has a lot of very loyal supporters. If an impeachment is pressed against him, they are going to be mad. And if they are mad, they are going to look for ways to retaliate. How much that gathers momentum I can’t really judge at this point.
At the end of the day you have to put your feet on the table and look out the window and ask yourself what’s good for the country. Ten, 15, 20 years from now, when my children and grandchildren ask me, 'Why did you do that, Dad?' or 'Grandad?' You’ve got an honest answer that you are comfortable with.
You can cast a thousand votes in the Congress and they don’t mean much 10 minutes later or years later.
This one you will remember. You will remember how you voted, and if you want to have a clear conscience, you better vote the way you think, honestly, it was.