May 2, 2018 – In 1876, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Secretary of War William Belknap for what the U.S. Senate has described as “a pattern of corruption blatant even by the standards of the scandal-tarnished Grant administration.”
This is the only time in the 229-year history of the Constitution that an executive branch official other than a president has been impeached. Throughout our nation’s history, the House has recognized that impeachment power was not intended to be used for political, partisan or ideological purposes.
Yet apparently no one got the word to Republican Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio. The two leaders of the House Freedom Caucus have threatened Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with impeachment and now, led by Meadows, Freedom Caucus members have actually drafted articles of impeachment against Rosenstein.
His supposed offense? He had the temerity to refuse to throw open Justice Department files related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing criminal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Members of Congress simply have no business injecting themselves into the middle of a Justice Department criminal investigation. Such actions can seriously undermine the investigation and provide assistance to its subjects and targets.
Rosenstein flatly rejected this obvious effort to intimidate him and interfere with the Russia investigation. “The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” he said Tuesday in a clear reference to the demands and impeachment threats made by Freedom Caucus members.
The improper demand for documents by Meadows, Jordan and a small group of House GOP Trump enablers is part of a transparent effort to attack and discredit the special counsel investigation. Shortly after Meadows and Jordan met with Rosenstein to pressure him on obtaining documents, Meadows reportedly spoke to President Trump. Meadows refused to reveal the details of the conversation.
But Trump himself jumped into the fray Wednesday, tweeting an evident endorsement of the Meadows and Jordan complaints and threatening to “use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved.” No wonder. Those internal Justice documents about the investigation would be quite helpful to Trump as he prepares to deal with Mueller’s questions.
Meadows, Jordan and their coterie are out to protect Trump at all costs — regardless of what the investigation finds. They also apparently are out to provide phony cover for Trump to fire Rosenstein or Mueller in the event he decides to do this.
The actions of Meadows, Jordan and their ilk constitute a gross abuse of their offices. They are attempting to misuse the impeachment process as a weapon for intimidation of Justice Department officials and to pervert the process in a manner never envisioned by the Founding Fathers or previously undertaken by the House.
We know this in part because we have seen this movie before.
In the last Congress, Meadows and Jordan recklessly pursued a meritless effort to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. The claims against Koskinen were investigated by the Justice Department and by the Inspector General of the Treasury Department, and neither found any wrongdoing by Koskinen.
The episode was an exercise in raw, right-wing Republican politics. The effort to impeach Koskinen became a vehicle for Republican members to raise campaign contributions for the 2016 election. Meadows, Jordan and their Freedom Caucus supporters showed little interest in the actual facts of the case, which made clear Koskinen had done nothing wrong.
They were out to get Koskinen and the facts proving them wrong were irrelevant. Fortunately, the great majority of their colleagues thought otherwise. When Jordan pushed this to a vote in the House on Dec. 6, 2016, Jordan, Meadows and the Freedom Caucus were soundly rebuked with a bipartisan 342-72 vote against impeachment.
Meadows, Jordan and others are now playing the same indefensible, reckless impeachment game with Rosenstein. This time they are out to sabotage the Mueller Russia investigation at any cost. And to do so they are directly attacking a rule-of-law principle by attempting to interfere with an executive branch criminal investigation.
The Code of Official Conduct of the House of Representatives starts by saying that House members “shall behave at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House.” Meadows and Jordan have violated this ethics rule and should be held accountable by their House colleagues for bringing discredit on the institution in which they serve.
Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21. Norman Eisen, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, was chief White House ethics lawyer in the Obama administration. Follow them on Twitter: @FredWertheimer and @NormEisen
This piece was published here in USA Today on May 2, 2018.