Geoff Shepard: Trump impeachment and Watergate – As a Nixon defense attorney I can compare them

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team famously championed its modus operandi of silence during its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But since attorneys failed to destroy President Trump, their top dog is trying a new trick.

Following the lackluster Trump impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller prosecutor Andrew “The Pit Bull” Weissmann took to cable news to coach Democrats on their performance. He urged them to go bigger and bolder with their argument by comparing President Trump’s conduct directly to President Richard Nixon’s in the Watergate scandal.

Days later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did just that by claiming: “What [Trump] did was so much worse than even what Richard Nixon did.”

DEMS COULD DRAFT 4 ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT, GOP PLANS FOR FULL SENATE TRIAL, SOURCES SAY

The comparisons between the scandals are hitting a fever pitch. So as a former member of Nixon’s Watergate defense team, I feel obliged to point out similarities, differences and the source of the danger both presidents encountered: The Revenge of the Special Prosecutors.

Every legal defense begins by understanding the accusations and applicable laws. The Constitution is a bit vague on defining an impeachable offense, using the words “Treason, Bribery or Other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

President Gerald Ford defined impeachment in political terms, as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

This is not great for any sitting president, as it means the opposition can essentially make up the charges as it goes along.

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In the drive to impeach Trump, Democrats began pushing a charge centered on the Latin phrase “quid pro quo.” When the public yawned at that, Democrats pivoted to English and said they were looking at “bribery” involving Trump. Wise move, as it is at least an enumerated offense. But what does it mean in this context?

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Democrats are still trying to figure that out, but they keep amplifying these unjust accusations to make Trump sound terrible until they can nail down a persuasive definition.

Trump has bigger problems to worry about than the ever-fluctuating Democratic message. His opponents are leveraging Watergate precedent and hoping for creative legal opinions to eradicate the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

A grand jury's function involves such one-sided procedures that there are strict rules on secrecy. Targets are forbidden to have counsel present, are unable to cross-examine accusatory witnesses, and are not permitted to produce evidence or witnesses of their own. Even if no indictments follow, the elicited testimony can be very damaging to those investigated.

Metaphorically, grand jury examinations aren’t meant for public consumption because they’re legal colonoscopies.

President Gerald Ford defined impeachment in political terms, as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

Yet tidbits gleaned from questioning by politicized prosecutors who conducted such investigations is why congressional committees, both now and during Watergate, salivate over gaining access to the raw depositions. Yet the entire design of the investigators, from beginning to end, was to harm their presidential foe.

The Watergate special prosecutors had grand jurors adopt a report containing testimony that they asked be transmitted to the House.  Known as the “road map,” this is credited with leading to impeachment proceedings against Nixon that led to his resignation.

As Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski later told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, the House was “very slow” getting started and would never have gotten off the ground without information provided by the special prosecutors.

Today we’re watching something of the same thing, where the House Judiciary Committee has gone to court to demand grand jury testimony cited in the Mueller report. Judge Beryl Howell upheld their subpoena, finding the committee’s demand was in the nature of a judicial inquiry, and thus within an exception to the statute forbidding release of grand jury information.

It’s been widely speculated that the Mueller team members knew they couldn’t find anything on Trump, so they created their own road map for Congress. It’s important to note that Weissmann was their true lead strategist. Mueller was just a figurehead.

Weissmann knew that when the Watergate prosecutors concluded they couldn’t indict Nixon, they realized they needed to get their information to Congress as a basis for his impeachment.

Watergate’s original special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, played a leadership role with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960, accompanying him on the presidential campaign plane and then serving as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s solicitor general.

We know that Weissmann was politically active, too. He was a Hillary Clinton fan, who reportedly spent election night 2016 at her campaign’s party. It’s scary to think how aggressively someone with a blatantly political agenda like Weissmann would have conducted Mueller’s grand jury investigations.

Even worse, we now know that during Watergate the special prosecutors colluded with House investigators by secretly sharing prosecutorial information. In today’s media environment it is hard to believe that Weissmann’s team would jeopardize their long game and risk getting caught in such secret meetings.

So Weissmann has found an apparent loophole to continue directing the assault -- as a TV pundit drawing on his insights gained from the Mueller investigation.

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Trump benefits from the confusion of Democratic messaging and their insatiable desire to impeach him before voters express their own views at the ballot box. The Democrats failed with Russia, so now they’re trying Ukraine. Tomorrow, who knows? As President Ford forewarned, it can be whatever they want it to be.

With the “Pit Bull” now becoming the Democratic messaging maestro, equipped with a quiver of grand jury secrets he helped to plant, I’d offer my own Latin advice to Trump’s legal team: “cave canem.” Beware of the dog.

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