45 years ago, another presidential impeachment involved another Sarbanes

By: Dana Gray, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON – Former Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who was a Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee when it adopted articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. (Photo courtesy of United States Senate Historical Office)

WASHINGTON – On July 26, 1974, Maryland Rep. Paul Sarbanes introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon during the House Judiciary Committee’s deliberations over the Watergate scandal. 

The article was unanimously supported by all 21 Democrats on the committee as well as six of the 17 committee Republicans.

“We are here to make this Constitution a vital document for all of our people to end, to end the abuse of power, the obstruction of justice, that has gone on to the detriment of the constitutional government,” Sarbanes said during his allotted 15 minutes of remarks before the panel.

“It’s a grave and sobering decision,” Sarbanes was quoted by The Washington Post as saying.

The impeachment process that captivated the country in 1974 is repeating itself now, with attention-grabbing headlines seemingly churning out by the hour as House Democrats, including another Sarbanes, investigate President Donald Trump.

What was dubbed the “Sarbanes substitute” would pass the Judiciary Committee as one of three articles of impeachment against Nixon, an article outlining the president’s use of obstruction of justice during the investigation of Watergate. 

Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned before the full House of Representatives could vote on the articles of impeachment.

Sarbanes, now 86, was not available for an interview.

At the time of Watergate, Sarbanes was only a junior member of the committee, but the 41-year-old attorney was still selected by then-Chairman Peter Rodino, D-New Jersey, to introduce the first article of impeachment.

The investigation “pretty well consumed all of one’s time and effort and attention for, well, more than a year,” Sarbanes recalled in an oral history conducted by the Wisconsin Historical Society. “That’s really pretty much all that we focused on. That also was probably quite significant as a shaping event…But Nixon really put us through the wringer, I think.”

Sarbanes served three more years in the House, then was elected to the Senate, where he represented Maryland for three decades, retiring in 2007.

New reports suggest that a majority of Americans support the current impeachment inquiry into Trump, a number that has grown over time, echoing the public’s evolving opposition to Nixon.

Sen. Sarbanes’ son, Rep. John Sarbanes, represents roughly the same congressional district as his father did during the Nixon impeachment. And the younger Sarbanes has joined his fellow Democrats in supporting impeachment.

John Sarbanes currently sits on the Oversight and Reform Committee, which plays a key role in investigating potentially impeachable offenses and recently subpoenaed the White House for documents to aid in the panel’s probe.

“Launching an official impeachment inquiry is a sober undertaking, but the president has given us no other choice,” Rep. Sarbanes said in a statement that mirrored what his father said in 1974.

Forty-five years ago, Paul Sarbanes was joined by the only other Maryland representative on the judiciary committee, Republican Lawrence Hogan Sr., father of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in voting “yes” on all three articles of impeachment against Nixon.

Rep. Hogan was the first Republican in Congress to express support for impeachment and was the only Republican to vote for all three articles, joining what was a growing American sentiment in support of impeachment.

In the Senate, the elder Sarbanes was part of another impeachment – against President Bill Clinton in early 1999. 

After a Senate trial, Sarbanes was among those voting against articles of impeachment charging Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his affair with a White House intern. Neither article was supported by the required two-thirds of the Senate and Clinton thus was acquitted. 

“President Clinton has engaged in disgraceful and reprehensible conduct which has severely sullied and demeaned his tenure as president,” Sen. Sarbanes said in a statement published in the Congressional Record. “Because of his shameful and reckless behavior he has brought dishonor upon himself, deeply hurt his family, and grievously diminished his reputation and standing now, and in history.”

“But the diminishing of Bill Clinton must not lead us to diminish the presidency for his successors as our nation moves into the new millennium,” he added. “There is a danger to the nation in deposing a political leader chosen directly by the people and we must be wary of the instability it would bring to our political system.”

Clinton’s offenses were not as substantial as those of Nixon, the Maryland senator argued. 

While House Democrats say they are currently working to ensure a thorough and fair investigation into potentially impeachable offenses committed by Trump. The president has frequently accused the inquiry of being a “witch hunt.”

Although no Republicans have outwardly supported impeachment, prominent party figures like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have noted that they would first like to see the evidence against Trump, with Graham saying “Show me something that is a crime… that would be very disturbing.

The House voted 232-196 in favor of a resolution Thursday that established the official impeachment procedures for the next phase of public hearings and votes. The vote fell largely along party lines.

Rep. Sarbanes, who voted for the resolution, said in a statement “In solemn and serious fashion, the House of Representatives has taken the necessary steps to uphold our oath of office, obey the Constitution and defend our democracy.”

The full House vote came over a month after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced the impeachment inquiry and follows several current committee investigations into potential impeachable actions committed by Trump.


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