In March of 1974, then-Washington Attorney General Slade Gorton broke with fellow Republicans with a public call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation amid revelations of abuse of power related to the Watergate scandal.
More than four decades later, with Congress poised to take a key vote Thursday to formalize an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Gorton is once again at odds with most in his party, who have dismissed the Ukraine investigation as a partisan witch hunt.
“I reached the conclusion that there are a dozen actions on this president’s part that warrant a vote of impeachment in the House,” Gorton, the former U.S. senator, said in an interview this week at his Clyde Hill home.
While Gorton hasn’t held office since losing to Maria Cantwell in 2000, the 91-year-old remains a mentor and elder statesman in the Washington GOP as the last Republican to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. His backing of impeachment echoes similar statements by some other national GOP figures, such as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Gorton pointed to testimony that Trump and allies, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, pressured leaders of the Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his family. (The effort also involved Gordon Sondland, the Northwest hotelier appointed ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.)
“That poor president of the Ukraine,” Gorton said, referring to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “Trying to keep an independent country … and the president of the United States is holding up his money and his reputation and everything else. Of course that was not an even negotiation by any stretch of the imagination. It was a pure shakedown.”
Despite believing impeachment charges are justifiable, Gorton won’t go so far as to say whether Trump should be removed from office.
“Whether or not they (the impeachment charges) warrant conviction in the Senate is a different and more subjective question, because you have to ask that question: How important is it? Is it enough to overturn the verdict of the voters in 2016?” he said.
Gorton faced such a choice in 1998, when he participated in the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. He voted to acquit the Democrat on a charge of perjury to a grand jury, but to convict on a charge of obstruction of justice due to Clinton’s efforts to stymie the investigation into his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I said perjury, lying about sex — he did it, of course — was not sufficient to overturn the verdict of the voters, but obstruction of justice was. I’m not entirely sure I was right on the second count,” Gorton said.
Clinton was acquitted and served out his term in office as neither charge reached the two-thirds vote needed to remove him.
Gorton recalls that his split decision angered both Democrats and Republicans, and left him with “no constituency.”
Since leaving the Senate, Gorton has remained active in politics and public affairs, serving on the commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, working as an attorney and lobbyist for K & L Gates, and helping draw congressional and legislative district boundaries as a member of the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission.
Mainstream Republicans of Washington has named a new annual public-service award after him, and gave it this week to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.
Like some other prominent local Republicans, such as former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Congressman Dave Reichert, Gorton declined to endorse or vote for Trump in 2016. He instead backed the longshot independent candidacy of former CIA officer Evan McMullin. Gorton says he won’t back Trump in 2020, either.
After weeks of closed-door depositions in the Ukraine controversy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced this week the House will vote Thursday on a resolution outlining the formal steps in the ongoing impeachment inquiry — the first such public vote by the full chamber in the impeachment battle.
Washington’s House delegation has split predictably along partisan lines so far, with all seven Democratic representatives announcing support of an impeachment inquiry by July — even before the Ukraine revelations. The state’s three Republican House members — McMorris Rodgers, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside — have continued to resist the effort.
Gorton said he did not want to offer public advice to those Republican officeholders, and predicted removal of Trump via impeachment remains unlikely.
“There is a road to his being convicted. There is enough there to pass an impeachment charge in the House. And there is enough there, rationally, to vote to convict in the Senate. That doesn’t mean to say it will happen. It doesn’t even mean to say it ought to happen,” he said.
Gorton’s March 1974 call for Nixon’s resignation — delivered in a 17-page speech he read at the Seattle Rotary Club — came before support for impeachment had reached a crescendo. Gorton told the audience that Nixon, “out of the evidence of his own mouth,” had given the House of Representatives cause for impeachment.
Many Republicans at the time didn’t want to hear it. One local business leader, a Nixon supporter, told The Seattle Times if he’d known about Gorton’s impeachment speech plan, he would have shown up “and booed until he left.”
But Gorton’s arguments proved prescient, as more Watergate revelations followed. Facing certain impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned five months later. Gorton noted this week there was “no effective Republican support” for Nixon’s impeachment before the launch of the formal congressional impeachment process, which included public hearings.
To bring skeptics along with the Trump impeachment will take a similarly public process, he said.
“If the Democrats want Trump gone, the only way they’ll get there is by persuading Republicans to vote with them. And the only way they’ll do that is first by involving them in the process, and having a process public enough so that public opinion gets up in the 60% range,” Gorton said.
“When public opinion hits 60 or 65% for him to be gone, there will be Republican votes for it, and there will be enough to convict him.”