Fredric D. Rutberg: Here's why the impeachment inquiry shouldn't be rushed

Conventional wisdom, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, says Democrats must conclude impeachment proceedings to avoid distracting from the 2020 presidential primaries and to prevent the nation from having to endure the "wrenching" impeachment process. The conventional wisdom may be wrong.

Too many issues must be explored before enough will be learned to intelligently decide if an elected president should be impeached and tried for bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. A decision on impeachment requires knowing the details of the president's financial dealings with the Russians and Saudis that could be revealed by examining his personal tax returns.

Credible evidence supports that President Trump violated his oath of office in myriad ways, as detailed in Tuesday's release of the House Democrats' report on the impeachment inquiry. Using the power of the presidency to enlist a foreign leader to effectively disqualify his strongest Democratic opponent is a political crime of the highest order.

The current impeachment inquiry is the fourth in our nation's history, but none of the others had credible allegations of national security breaches. History and our country's future require us to learn the full extent of the president's perfidy. A rush to conclude the impeachment could do lasting damage.

If, as expected, the House votes along party lines to impeach the president and the Senate votes along party lines to acquit him, there will be a strong argument that this matter has ended. The president and his supporters will claim that an acquittal, even if a majority of senators vote to convict, is a total victory. Not only will the president claim exoneration from the allegations in the articles of impeachment, he will also claim absolution from myriad other sins and crimes of which he has been accused that were not part of the impeachment inquiry.

Important details continue to emerge on a daily basis. A couple of weeks ago, the president went before TV cameras with notes parroting Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony about a September phone call during which the president told Sondland "no quid pro quo" and urging his ambassador to tell the Ukrainian president "to do the right thing." The president's words were echoed immediately and repeatedly by his supporters in Congress, Fox News and elsewhere as evidence of his innocence.

However, a week later, we learned that the president was briefed on the whistleblower's complaint the month before that conversation with Sondland. The president's words now appear as support for a hastily concocted defense. It resembles President Richard Nixon telling White House Counsel John Dean at the time that paying $1 million in hush money to the Watergate burglars could be done, but it "would be wrong" when Nixon knew the conversation was being taped.

History also requires the testimony of those who were privy to the alleged misdeeds. Currently, those with the most knowledge of what the president knew and when he knew it have failed to respond to Congressional subpoenas to testify.

On Monday, a federal judge re-asserted her order that former White House Counsel Donald McGahn show up before the House Intelligence Committee, in contrast to the president's assertion that his top aides are immune from Congressional subpoenas. U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said the absence of McGahn's testimony "would also injure the public's interest in thorough and well-informed impeachment proceedings."

Many who oppose the current impeachment hearings defend the president by claiming the testimony is second- or third-degree hearsay. In our jurisprudence, hearsay evidence is allowable when determining if charges should be brought, such as in an impeachment. The hearsay defense would disappear if Congress enforced its demands that key witnesses appear.

Forcing the impeachment to conclude before the primaries will cripple the process because witnesses with first-hand knowledge, including McGahn, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump's personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani can avoid having to appear and either testify or assert their Fifth Amendment privileges. Indeed, McGahn appealed the order for him to appear, and it is unlikely that appeal will be resolved by March.

Washington correspondent Charles Savage observed in last week's New York Times, "If the [President's] overriding goal is to keep information from coming out the Trump legal strategy is succeeding despite all the adverse rulings." In sports parlance, the president is trying to win an acquittal by running out the clock.

History requires that an impeachment trial — built on credible allegations that Trump used his office's broad powers to manage the country's foreign policy to support the false claim that his former Democratic challenger Joe Biden is corrupt — be a full and complete hearing.

The 2020 presidential campaign is clearly shaping up as a referendum on Donald Trump, his performance as president and his fitness for the position. By holding impeachment proceedings to an artificial deadline, Congressional Democrats are denying the American public its opportunity to learn as much as it can about the most enigmatic president our country has had just when the public needs to know more.

House Democrats should act with deliberate speed on impeachment but not be bothered by the schedule of presidential primaries. If the process cannot be completed until summer, the proceedings can be suspended until after the election, when the people will have rendered their verdict on this president. In the meantime, history demands deliberation.

Fredric D. Rutberg is president and publisher of The Berkshire Eagle.