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Frank DeFilippo: Like Father, Like Son

Then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) holds up a newspaper at a hearing in 2003. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Like father, like son. For former Sen. Paul Sarbanes and his Congressman son, John, impeachment is the tie that binds.

At no other point in the twisted and inbred political history of the nation has a father and son, representing the same congressional district, sat at the threshold of not one, not two, but three impeachment proceedings of presidents.

Two generations of Sarbanes, father and son, claim their elective franchise as the 3rd congressional district, though the territory John now represents, through manipulation of squiggles and jiggles on the Maryland map, only faintly resembles the compact district his father represented in the 1970s. The district now includes central Baltimore City and parts of Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

Only two presidents have been impeached by Congress – Andrew Johnson in 1868, charged with 13 articles, and Bill Clinton in 1998, charged with two articles. Johnson was impeached by Republicans for his favorable treatment of former slaveholders during Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War. And Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Neither president was removed from office.

Paul Sarbanes, as a Congressman from 1971-77, was a key player in the move to impeach Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Sarbanes, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced one of the articles of impeachment, but Nixon resigned the presidency before the hearings got underway.

As a U.S. senator from 1977-2007, Paul Sarbanes participated as a defender of the presidency, but not of Clinton’s behavior, in a highly partisan proceeding that was prompted by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s investigation. Paul Sarbanes retired from the Senate in 2007 after five six-year terms.

And now John, a congressman since 2007 and a Harvard-trained lawyer like his father, is on the cusp of a third Sarbanes impeachment notch, this one, possibly, against President Trump if progressive Democrats have their way and House committee evidence leads them there. (A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that a majority of Americans, 56-37 percent, oppose impeaching Trump although they believe he lied to the public about his involvement in the issues under investigation.)

Frank A. DeFilippo

On the question of impeachment, John Sarbanes is aligned with the leadership of the House, which means Speaker Nancy Pelosi, born a D’Alesandro and Baltimore native. The Pelosi wing of the House Democrats prefers to proceed with caution on impeachment – “He’s not worth it,” she said – and allow the committee hearing system to follow through on the 448-page Mueller Report’s findings.

However, rambunctious House progressive Democrats are eager to claim Trump’s vanity scalp, in all of its spray-can, saffron-tinted, comb-over daily miracle, and are demanding full-speed-ahead on impeachment. John Sarbanes, along with Pelosi, is helping to tamp down any reckless enthusiasm, with elections less than a year away. Their message is to focus on bread-and-butter issues and the 2020 election will take care of Trump.

John Sarbanes is also the author of H.R. 1, a comprehensive reform package with 272 co-sponsors which the House passed but has little chance of survival in the Republican-led Senate. The bill is aimed mainly at changing the way campaigns are financed and ridding politics of dark money that was enabled by Citizens United.

There are a number of House committees conducting parallel investigations along the different routes sketched out for them in the Mueller Report: House Judiciary Committee; House Intelligence Committee; Ways and Means Committee; and the House Oversight and Reform Committee, headed by yet another Marylander, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D).

And Trump, true to form, says he will resist any attempt to impeach him, and, it appears, even to question White House officials on the areas the Mueller Report pried open on the question of obstruction. Trump even threatened to ask the Supreme Court to referee the fight over Congress’s Constitutional authority. Trump is often in error but never in doubt.

But first, a quick primer on impeachment: The word is being tossed around ever so lightly these days, now that Democrats have control of the House in a divided government. But impeachment is a disingenuous word that doesn’t mean what many people think it does, or wish it did.

Impeachment means, simply, to accuse. It does not, as many believe, automatically mean to remove. Articles of impeachment are the beginning of a lengthy and tortuous process in the House of Representatives, acting as a grand jury. There they are debated and, if adopted, sent to the Senate where a sort of trial is conducted. An official is removed only if found guilty by the Senate. The chief justice of the Supreme Court acts as judge during the Senate trial.

There’s another way out, too. The 25th Amendment allows the assembled cabinet to simply remove a president from office because he is unfit to serve for whatever reason. But the cabinet surrounding Trump, at least what’s left of it, is a group of lickspittle cheerleaders. As is often remarked in politics, if you’re going to shoot the king, best you not miss.

Paul Sarbanes was singled out during the Senate’s trial of Clinton because of his previous experience in the House during the Nixon impeachment proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, picked Sarbanes to deliver a major statement on impeachment during a closed Senate session which was later released to the Congressional record.

In the statement, Sarbanes denounced Clinton’s abhorrent personal behavior but warned of “the instability it [impeachment] would bring to our political system.” He argued, too, that Clinton’s behavior, though certainly worth a scolding, did not meet the test for impeachment.

In 1974, Paul Sarbanes, was chosen by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino, of New Jersey, to introduce the First Article of Impeachment against Nixon as well as to manage the Watergate debate.

The parallels between then and now are eerily similar. The First Article was for – are you ready for this? – obstruction of justice. It specified nine categories of unlawful activities that were allegedly part of the Watergate coverup. The Sarbanes article was adopted on a 27-11 bipartisan vote, which all but assured that Nixon would have been impeached if he had not resigned. Paul Sarbanes, at the time, called the vote “a grave and sobering decision.”

In what seems like a case of echolalia, the Mueller Report laid out 10 possible areas where obstruction was worth exploring by Congress but did not conclude on its own that it actually occurred because Justice Department rules (written in the 1990s) prohibit the indictment of a sitting president.

Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, decided unilaterally that obstruction did not occur, an interpretation that has led to a possible legal showdown between the executive and legislative branches of government. Both Mueller and Barr are scheduled to testify before House committees.

Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.)

John Sarbanes’ major work has been as chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force. According to his web site, the task force “works to confront the Trump Administration’s conflicts of interest and ethical lapses, and to fight back against special interest policies in Congress.” Its signal effort so far has been H.R. 1, “to clean up the culture of corruption in Washington.”

It all makes you wonder what father and son discuss over dinner.


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Frank DeFilippo: Like Father, Like Son