WASHINGTON – If the U.S. House ultimately moves to impeach President Trump, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton could be on a team of Democrats that makes the case to the U.S. Senate to oust the president from the White House.
The freshman Arizona Democrat and former Phoenix mayor clinched a seat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee, where he’s been thrust into the heated debate over impeachment that’s playing out on Capitol Hill. Stanton has used the perch to assail the behavior of Trump and his administration, and the Arizona congressman is poised to be a key player as the House navigates its next moves.
It remains far from certain that House Democrats will attempt to go the impeachment route. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and many other Democrats in the caucus have been wary of that option, given the potential for political blowback.
But others are clamoring to launch proceedings aimed at ousting the president, and many say they’re at least open to taking that path in the future.
Stanton’s office declined to comment for this story about his view of the House taking up impeachment proceedings or about his possible role.
He has, however, said that Trump appears to have obstructed justice, and he’s been among those calling for further inquiries stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The Special Counsel’s findings shock the conscience and should deeply trouble every American who values our democracy and respects the rule of law,” Stanton said in a statement following the release of Mueller’s report last month.
“The President knew his behavior was wrong, and he worked to block the American people and Special Counsel from learning the full truth of what happened. There is substantial evidence the President obstructed justice by actively preventing a complete investigation of his campaign and own conduct.”
Before he was elected mayor of Phoenix in 2012, Stanton served nine years on the Phoenix City Council and was Arizona’s deputy attorney general.
Other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have cautioned that it is premature to consider how impeachment proceedings would play out – if it happens at all.
“That is so far ahead of where we are,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), the vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. “We’re focused on next steps. and right now, the next step is getting the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence.”
Lessons from Clinton saga
If the House does ultimately agree to impeach the president, President Bill Clinton’s Senate trial offers some lessons about how lawmakers could be picked to make the case to the upper chamber.
The Republican-led House voted to impeach Clinton in December 1998, and the next step was a trial in the Senate. Then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) picked a team of 13 of his GOP colleagues – all of them lawyers and some of them former prosecutors – to help him make his case.
The New York Times reported that year that the 13 House “managers” selected were all generally more conservative than a random sampling of House Republicans at the time.
They included some who are still in Congress, including Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who’s now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who remain members of the House Judiciary Committee.
For the month-long Senate trial in early 1999, those House managers argued for Clinton’s removal, although they knew their chances of success were slim. The Senate ultimately acquitted Clinton, failing to get the two-thirds majority of votes needed to convict him and remove him from office.
“We knew that maybe we wouldn’t win it in the Senate for a whole host of reasons, but we all thought we had to do our best,” said former Florida Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, who was among the House managers.
McCollum, now a partner at the law firm Dentons, was charged with delivering the House managers’ closing arguments against Clinton on the Senate floor.
He told senators at the time, “I suspect that most of you – probably more than two-thirds – believe that the president did, indeed, commit most, if not all, of the crimes he is charged with under these articles of impeachment. I suspect that a great many of you share my view that these are high crimes and misdemeanors.” And he warned senators that there would be “some very significant negative consequences of failing to remove this president.”
McCollum said he wasn’t worried about any political consequences for participating in the trial.
“I felt it just wasn’t something that I should put my finger in the wind and worry about,” he said. “I did what I thought was right.”
McCollumn left the House after running for a U.S. Senate seat in the 2000 election. He clinched the Republican nomination, but lost to Democrat Bill Nelson.
Another House manager in the Clinton trial was Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.), who lost his 2000 re-election bid to Rep. Adam Schiff, who is now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Rogan “was under the most pressure, and did in fact lose the next time around, because he was in a very Democrat district that didn’t like this happening, and he did it anyway,” McCollum said. “There’s the one who should get the profile in courage.”
Rogan is now a judge on the Superior Court of California.
‘Literally anything can happen’
McCollum doesn’t think it’s wise for House Democrats to attempt to oust Trump from office.
“It’s certainly possible that they would choose to impeach him,” he said. “I think, politically, it’s not smart for them to do. I don’t think the same circumstances (that existed when Clinton was impeached) exist today in this situation.”
Donald Ritchie, who was the U.S. Senate historian from 1976 until 2015, said in a recent interview, “I certainly don’t think there’s the slightest chance of the president being removed.”
He added, “if you’ve got the speaker of the House saying it’s not a good idea, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Pelosi told The Washington Post in March that “impeachment is so divisive to the country that, unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”
“And he’s just not worth it,” she said of Trump.
But Pelosi hasn’t closed the door entirely on impeachment.
“We can’t impeach him for political reasons and we can’t not impeach him for political reasons,” she said earlier this month. “We have to see where the facts take us.”
Some legal scholars have questioned whether the Senate could stave off a trial even if the House votes to impeach Trump.
Current Senate rules contemplate that a House vote on impeachment will lead to House managers presenting their case, wrote Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Obama. However, Bauer suggested, “it is also possible that, in this time of disregard and erosion of established institutional practices and norms, the current leadership of the Senate could choose to abrogate them once more” by attempting to block a trial.
Bauer noted that the Constitution confers on the Senate “the sole power to try,” but doesn’t expressly direct the chamber to try an impeachment.
“There’s no absolute requirement, but the Senate has always followed through and held a trial, Ritchie said. “Public pressure would probably require some response,” he added. He expects that Republicans would calculate that there would be no chance of surpassing the huge hurdle of getting the votes of a two-thirds majority in the Senate needed to remove the president.
“In the era of Trump, literally anything can happen,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) another member of the House Judiciary Committee. “But if you have any lingering appreciation for the language and the meaning of the Constitution, there’s no choice that the Senate has to conduct a trial.”
He said of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “He can bury pretty much everything else, but he cannot bury an impeachment trial.”