War Stories

“Where Is Howard Baker?”

The big difference between this impeachment inquiry and Watergate isn’t the president—it’s Congress.

Ranking Member Devin Nunes, minority counsel Steve Castor, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan in 2019. Minority counsel Fred Thompson, Ranking Member Howard Baker, and Chair Sam Ervin of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973.
Ranking member Devin Nunes, minority counsel Steve Castor, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan in 2019. Minority counsel Fred Thompson, ranking member Howard Baker, and Chair Sam Ervin of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Sam Ervin Library.

“Where is Howard Baker?” Rep. Adam Schiff asked during his stirring statement at the end of Thursday’s impeachment hearing, and it stands as the key question of our time.

Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, gained fame by asking one witness after the other, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” We later learned that, when Baker asked the question, he was assuming that Richard Nixon didn’t know much—that, contrary to charges, he hadn’t directed or covered up the Watergate break-in and related crimes.

The thing is, when Baker realized that Nixon did know everything, that he was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, he—like many other Republicans—changed his views and urged the president to resign rather than put the country through an impeachment trial that would inevitably oust him from office.

The hearings this and last week served up several potential Baker moments—revelations that, in earlier times, would have persuaded erstwhile loyalists that President Donald Trump had abused the public trust (as Alexander Hamilton described the nature of an impeachable offense) and no longer deserved to hold high office.

But, as Schiff bemoaned, there are no Howard Bakers in today’s Republican Party. The difference between Watergate and now, he observed, “is not the difference between Nixon and Trump. It’s the difference between that Congress and this one.”

One difference between now and then is that, in 1973, the Democrats held a huge majority in both the House and Senate. But that wasn’t the only difference. By the time the House Judiciary Committee took up an impeachment resolution, six of the panel’s 17 Republicans joined all 21 Democrats to vote aye. The full House and more than two-thirds of the Senate were prepared to do the same. Judging from this month’s impeachment hearings, a similar resolution against Trump—which may come up as early as next month—is unlikely to draw a single Republican vote.

By any rational standard, it’s flabbergasting. If anyone still doubted that Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to smear former Vice President Joe Biden, his possible opponent in the 2020 election—or that Trump had held up military aid to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to announce an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter—all doubts should have been dispelled by the testimony this week.

The key witness was Gordon Sondland, a hotel tycoon who was named U.S. ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration party. Sondland testified on Wednesday that there was a “quid pro quo” between the lifting of the aid and the announcement of an investigation; that he conveyed this to the Ukrainians on Trump’s orders; and that senior officials—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, among others—knew. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said several times, rebutting reports that he and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had been running a “rogue” foreign policy.

Sondland has been likened to John Dean, the White House counsel who testified during the Watergate hearings about a “cancer on the presidency” stemming from Nixon’s abuse of power and the cover-up. This isn’t quite true. Dean seemed to have a genuine crisis of conscience and, after confessing, wound up serving four months in prison for his role in the scandal. (Seven senior officials were sentenced to jail for their roles in Watergate, including Nixon’s attorney general, chief of staff, domestic policy adviser, and counsel to his campaign committee.)

By contrast, Sondland lied in his first two statements to Schiff’s impeachment committee. In a closed-door deposition in October, he said he knew nothing about a quid pro quo. Then, after other witnesses testified to the contrary, he submitted a revised statement noting that, come to think of it, he did learn about a quid pro quo in September. Then, David Holmes, a staff member at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, testified in a closed deposition (and, on Thursday, in public as well) that he overheard a phone call in which Sondland and Trump discussed the quid pro quo on July 26, the day after Trump’s infamous phone call with Zelensky. When Sondland testified in public on Wednesday, with Holmes’ testimony on the record, he finally came clean and took everyone, including Trump, down with him, offering texts and emails that proved their complicity.

Sondland may have been motivated by the strong likelihood that, if he hadn’t refreshed his memory completely, he would have faced charges of perjury. Trump may now regret hiring someone as purely transactional as himself for the job: When pressed to the wall, such people don’t go down alone. Trump, who has done his own share of bus-flinging, said Thursday that he hardly knows Sondland, just as he’s said in the past about his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his former lawyer Michael Cohen, and others who have been nabbed for their activities while in his service.

Whatever Sondland’s motives, the Republicans on the committee didn’t flinch from their allegiance to Trump. At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Republican ranking member Devin Nunes apologized to Sondland for the bruising he was about to get from the Democrats. Then Sondland turned out to be the Democrats’ star witness, and when it came Nunes’ turn to ask questions, he had nothing.

Through the two weeks of hearings, as the witnesses helped build a steadily compelling case against Trump, the Republicans faltered more and more palpably. After the first few days, Republican counsel Steve Castor looked embarrassed by the questions he was obligated to ask; by the end, he seemed distraught, as if preoccupied with the dread that he would soon lose his job and no law firm worth its salt would ever hire him.

It was left to Nunes and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to play attack dog, but by the end Nunes barely mustered a bark, and a bark was all Jordan had. In an advance sign of the Republicans’ weak position, Jordan had been brought over to the committee to give Trump’s advocates more heft. He talked loud and fast and always showed up without a jacket, as if he were taking the fight outside, but he never landed a punch.

Jordan’s approach to Holmes was to sneer skeptically at the notion that he could have heard Trump’s voice over Sondland’s cellphone. Aside from the plausibility of Holmes’ story and the clear credibility of Holmes himself, Jordan ignored the fact that, just the day before, Sondland had confirmed the accuracy of Holmes’ account.

Faced, on Thursday, with the daunting Fiona Hill, the former NSC director of Russian and Eurasian affairs, the Republicans flailed away more senselessly still. Nunes tried to link her to the Steele dossier (she’d known Steele when he worked for British intelligence), but only wound up stiffening the case against Trump—apparently without realizing it. Noting that Steele had been funded by the Democratic National Committee, Nunes asked Hill and Holmes if they agreed that it was wrong for an American to ask foreign officials for dirt on political opponents—forgetting for a moment that Trump had asked Zelensky for dirt on his political opponent. Hill and Holmes agreed it was wrong. Nunes quickly moved on.

Castor asked Hill, who was born and raised in northern England, whether she was more loyal to Britain than she was to America. Earlier in the week, he’d insinuated that the NSC’s Ukraine specialist, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—whose father had taken him out of the Soviet Union when he was a toddler, and who later earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained while serving in Iraq—felt more loyal to Ukraine. Both suggestions were preposterous and disgraceful. Not a single Republican rose to say Castor had gone too far.

Several times, Jordan threw up a preposterous explanation for Trump’s actions. Yes, he acknowledged, Trump held up military aid to Ukraine, but that was pending an analysis of whether Zelensky was a true reformer. After 55 days, Trump concluded that he was the real deal, and so he released the aid. Jordan recited this tale as if it were fact, but not a shred of evidence supports it and mounds of evidence refute it absolutely. (Trump “didn’t give a shit about Ukraine,” as Sondland told Holmes; and he’s never evinced concern about corruption anywhere, except for the energy firm that put Hunter Biden on its board.)

Over the past few weeks, Trump’s allies—not just on the committee but throughout Congress and in the White House—kept pushing back their line of defense. First they insisted there was no quid pro quo. Then they insisted those who said there was a quid pro quo were relying on hearsay. Then, when firsthand witnesses affirmed the claim, they impugned the witnesses’ judgment or patriotism. Then, in their summaries, they recited the old arguments, even though they’d long been rebutted, hoping that “the base”—which, as Trump once said, would still be for him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue—wouldn’t notice or, more likely, wouldn’t care.

Sen. Lindsey Graham is the textbook case of this gaslighting. In October, Graham said, in an interview with Axios, “If you could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call [with Zelensky], that would be very disturbing.” After a few eyewitnesses testified that Trump was engaging in just that, Graham turned out not to be disturbed at all—and behaved as if he’d never suggested he might be.

More audacious still is Fox News host Sean Hannity, who, after Sondland’s hearing—clearly Trump’s worst day since the impeachment inquiry began—declared, “It couldn’t have gone better for President Trump.” It went so well, Hannity claimed, that the impeachment inquiry might as well be “over. It is done. This is the end of this”—a line Trump later copied in a tweet.

Two Republicans, Reps. Will Hurd and Mac Thornberry, both from Texas and both somewhat moderate, have recently said that Trump’s actions were inappropriate but fell short of the clear felonies required for impeachment. Their argument is thin: Bribery doesn’t have to succeed to be bribery, and nonfelonies, such as abuse of power and obstruction of justice, are also impeachable offenses. But at least these two are honest: They acknowledge Trump’s actions; they just don’t want to oust him. The other Republicans, especially those on the House committee, seem to know that Trump’s deeds stepped over the line—which is why they so fervently deny that he committed them.

Howard Baker died in 2014. He seems to have left no legacy within his party.