Trump actions look 'clearly' impeachable, says leading conservative legal figure

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent


Jack Goldsmith, a former top Justice Department lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, thinks that President Trump deserves to be impeached, but the conservative legal scholar is also critical of how the Democrats are going about the process.

President Trump’s actions in the Ukraine scandal appear to be “clearly” impeachable and are “probably the 300th thing Trump has done that’s an impeachable offense,” Goldsmith told Yahoo News in an interview on the “Long Game” podcast. But he also lamented the impact of a few Democratic mistakes, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s misleading answers on whether he or his staff had been in touch with the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry.

“In the general scheme of things, what Schiff did doesn’t even compare to what the president did,” Goldsmith said.

But, he said, it nonetheless “was deeply unfortunate.”

“It’s significant because 40-some-odd percent of this country believes that the Democrats and the deep state have been violating norms and skirting norms to try to reverse the election [of 2016],” Goldsmith said. “I don’t think that’s the proper characterization, but when the president’s opponents cut corners, don’t tell the truth, seem like they’re in league with bureaucrats to try to bring down the president, it just fosters that narrative and I think it’s a very destructive narrative.”

Jack Goldsmith, Adam Schiff and Donald Trump. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Schiff told MSNBC on Sept. 17 that neither he nor his staff had “spoken directly with the whistleblower.” But in fact, the whistleblower had spoken with Intelligence Committee staffers prior to filing his or her official complaint on Aug. 12 about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a New York Times report.

That means that for the entire August recess, Schiff had some knowledge of the existence and contents of the whistleblower complaint, which stated that Trump had pressured Zelensky to have his government investigate Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

On Sept. 9 — more than a week before the whistleblower complaint exploded into the news cycle on Sept. 19 — Schiff, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel sent a pair of letters to the White House and the State Department indicating some level of knowledge about the allegations that would be leveled by the whistleblower.

“A growing public record indicates that, for nearly two years, the President and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, appear to have acted outside legitimate law enforcement and diplomatic channels to coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity,” Schiff, Cummings and Engel wrote in their letters.

“If the President is trying to pressure Ukraine into choosing between defending itself from Russian aggression without U.S. assistance or leveraging its judicial system to serve the ends of the Trump campaign, this would represent a staggering abuse of power, a boon to Moscow, and a betrayal of the public trust,” the letters said.

President Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)


Goldsmith also noted that though it is allowed and may be justified, Democrats are using a different process for their impeachment inquiry than was used by congressional Republicans in 1998 for Democratic President Bill Clinton or by congressional Democrats in 1974 for Republican President Richard Nixon.

President Trump does not have counsel in the hearings, as Nixon did, and the House has not held a vote to authorize the inquiry, as was done during the Clinton impeachment.

“It’s not giving Trump the same procedural protections and rights that Clinton had and Nixon had,” Goldsmith said. “I’m not saying that’s even illegitimate, but there are two sides to this. But as always, the president is mostly to blame, I think.”

Goldsmith played a central role in one of the biggest showdowns of the last 20 years over the issue of government surveillance of people inside the United States. He deauthorized portions of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretap programs in 2004, clashing dramatically with Vice President Dick Cheney’s top advisers and leading to a now famous confrontation between Justice Department and White House officials at the hospital bedside of a seriously ill attorney general.

Goldsmith also did provide legal justification for sweeping government surveillance powers during that time, which came to light years later. He wrote a book about that period called “The Terror Presidency” and is now a Harvard Law School professor.

Goldsmith told Yahoo News that Trump has often been prevented from following his own instincts by those around him.

“There’s no doubt that this president is utterly indifferent to and contemptuous of the law,” he said. But, he added, “I think one of the remarkable and untold stories of the last three years is how little he’s gotten away with. Volume II of the Mueller report, one of the underappreciated stories there was how no one would carry out Trump’s orders.”

President Trump has corrupted Washington, Goldsmith said, but he worries about the way that Trump’s opponents sometimes sink to his level.

“It’s true that the president’s had a terribly corrosive effect on the way the government runs,” Goldsmith said. “I think one of his most evil accomplishments — if that’s not too strong — is that he’s induced the other actors in this town, and elsewhere, to violate norms.”

“Trump has unleashed everyone to act like him and people see him violating norms and there’s a tit for a tat going on in this town along so many dimensions and it’s a downward spiral of reciprocal norm violations,” Goldsmith said.

He cited the leaks early in the Trump administration of details of phone calls involving the president’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, with Russian officials.

Goldsmith’s fifth book, “In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth,” is the story of his relationship with his stepfather, Chuckie O’Brien, who was the right-hand man to Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa for many years, and of Goldsmith’s quest to clear O’Brien of the charge that he was involved with Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975.

The book also examines how Robert F. Kennedy used government power — as a Senate staffer and then as the attorney general — to launch a “campaign to destroy” Hoffa over the course of several years, using tactics that Goldsmith describes as “extra-constitutional,” “unethical” and even in one case “criminal.”

“Kennedy had plenty of justification to go after Hoffa,” Goldsmith writes, but he says that Kennedy “targeted Hoffa in a personal vendetta probably without parallel in American history.”

“And in so doing, he broke many rules for which he was never held accountable, and did collateral damage to the institutions he sought to protect,” he writes.

RFK’s abuse of congressional investigative powers, of the Internal Revenue Service and of the top law enforcement job in the country degraded the integrity of the American justice system, Goldsmith writes.

“The same techniques could be used to destroy just about any citizen who draws the ire of the state,” he writes.

And RFK’s expansion of government surveillance powers would lead to the moment in 2004 when Goldsmith decided that the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping was not legally or constitutionally sound.

“It’s hard to exaggerate how much the executive branch is addicted to surveillance,” Goldsmith said.

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