No one runs for Congress intending to serve on the House Ethics Committee. At least I know I didn’t.
I served on the committee for eight years, including two years as chairman. Enforcing House rules and standards of conduct on one’s colleagues and their staffs is a thankless but necessary task and can make for some uncomfortable elevator rides with colleagues under investigation.
The job will not win a committee member any popularity contests; it’s the congressional equivalent of a police department’s internal affairs division.
In fact, when Speaker John Boehner first tapped me in 2009 to serve on the Ethics Committee, two House Democratic colleagues who had learned of my appointment approached me on the House floor with a message specifically for me from legendary Congressman Jack Murtha: “We don’t want anybody on the Ethics Committee who wants to be on the Ethics Committee,” is what Murtha had told them to relay. Message received.
This often-difficult and rewarding job taught me something about how elected officials should conduct themselves in office, and that experience informs my judgment on President Trump and the current impeachment inquiry. I learned to distinguish between serious ethical and sometimes legal entanglements and frivolous or unfair ones, and how to safeguard the rights of those under investigation, who are at risk for potentially irreparable reputational damage.
Every member of Congress is told as a freshman that one cannot use a taxpayer-funded elected office for campaign purposes. Further, no candidate for any office may receive any campaign contribution or anything of value from non-US persons and foreign governments.
Based on the evidence contained in the White House’s rough transcript of President Donald Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the whistleblower complaint and reported witness testimony in the Ukraine matter, Trump, in his official capacity as president of the United States, solicited Zelensky to open an investigation into a feared 2020 rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden. (There is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.)
That conversation is, by itself, a serious ethical problem. Had it been publicly revealed that a member of Congress had solicited a foreign head of government to investigate and provide opposition research on his or her political opponent, that member would be investigated immediately and likely sanctioned by the Ethics Committee.
The committee would likely refer the entire matter to the Department of Justice as well, in the event that the department wasn’t already investigating.
Then there is the matter of the quid pro quo. Here again, President Trump stepped into an ethical and legal minefield by withholding a White House meeting and $400 million worth of military assistance to a besieged Ukrainian leader — whose country’s eastern provinces suffer under Russian-backed separatist fighting — in exchange for dirt on the Bidens.
White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney confessed to the quid pro quo in a head-exploding press briefing on October 17.
These facts alone warrant the opening an impeachment inquiry.
To complicate matters, Mulvaney subsequently and brazenly announced that, at the direction of the President, next year’s G7 Conference would be held at Trump’s Doral golf resort in southern Florida. Directing federal resources to an elected official’s own family business is a blatant act of self-dealing. This is a corrupt act. Full stop.
Apparently, the White House legal counsel and ethics advisers slept through internal White House conversations about Doral. Are there no adults left in the White House capable of providing sober advice to the President to avoid ethical train wrecks? In the end, it was congressional outrage that compelled the White House to reverse course on Doral.
No amount of procedural hand-wringing about the impeachment inquiry will change these stubborn facts.
Yes, there are problems with the process that House Democrats have employed: There should be a formal vote to open the Impeachment Inquiry, more of these proceedings should held in the open for transparency’s sake and rushing the investigation could erode public confidence in the process.
Moreover, Republican stunts in the House and Senate, like storming the House Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) and introducing meaningless, futile Senate resolutions denouncing activities in the House will not change the trajectory of this impeachment investigation. The House isn’t going to bend to a procedural objection from the Senate.
To my Republican congressional colleagues and dear friends with whom I served until last year: President Trump takes your loyalty for granted and mocks your support. It’s time to stand up, reclaim your institutional prerogatives, protect your legacy and do what is best for our country.
Good people can disagree on impeachment and removal from office under the circumstances as we currently understand them; overturning an election outcome must never be taken lightly or haphazardly. Members of Congress should refrain from declaring their positions and passing judgment on impeachment before all the facts relating to the President’s conduct are gathered.
In the meantime, and for those who have no formal role in the impeachment process, nothing should prevent us from calling out presidential misconduct, abuse of power and stating what we know to be rotten and wrong.