SALT LAKE CITY — Former Congressman Chris Cannon, a Republican House manager who helped prosecute the second impeachment in U.S. history, has some advice for those who will take on the same task against President Donald Trump:
Don’t do it.
But his counsel isn’t for reasons you would think.
Sure, the heady assignment was a lot of work that took over the life of the second-term Republican. The multiple TV appearances forever type-cast him as a “harsh,” fire-breathing conservative. And the frustrations of negotiating with Senate leaders who wanted a quick trial instead of a thorough airing of evidence nearly forced him to resign the post that he shared with 12 others, including now-Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who will now sit as a juror instead of prosecutor.
“It was totally and uncontrollably ad hoc,” Cannon says of the six-week trial that ended with President Bill Clinton acquitted of both perjury and obstruction of justice charges in 1999.
So, why does Cannon think the the seven Democratic House members named Wednesday as impeachment managers should turn down the high-profile post of prosecuting Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress?
“Neither one of those articles of impeachment has any substance. In other words, if you retroactively enforce those two articles on every single president, including George Washington, they would have been evicted from office,” Cannon contends.
The 69-year-old attorney and businessman still lives in Utah and has preferred to stay “under the radar” since he lost the nomination for a sixth term in 2008. But like many of the president’s supporters, he’s passionately adamant that Trump has done nothing worthy of impeachment and trial, which is set to begin next week and is expected to result in the third impeached president in the nation’s history to be acquitted by the Senate.
Cannon recently spoke to the Deseret News, recalling his role as a House manager, sharing his complaints about the process, and making a case that presidential impeachment trials are not built to get at the truth. And other media may be seeking out his opinions in the coming days and weeks. On Wednesday, he appeared on both CNN and KSL radio to discuss the upcoming impeachment trial.
“I’m willing to do it because it’s important to the American people to understand,” he said.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: You were a freshman congressman when you sat on the Judiciary Committee for the impeachment hearings. Were you surprised to be named a manager for the impeachment trial?
Chris Cannon: The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were in charge of the impeachment, so we all talked about it. I don’t recall who suggested what, but there were a series of talks about what to do and who would do it and my name came up and I was willing. (Committee Chairman) Henry Hyde wanted Rep. Jim Rogan (of California) and me. We were young and fairly aggressive and that’s just how that happened. I was the only guy on the impeachment team who had not been a prosecutor or for that matter even a litigator. I was a lawyer and had done a tiny bit of litigation, but not much.
DN: So what were your responsibilities as an impeachment manager?
CC: Well, there really was no division of responsibilities except to a very minor degree. But one of the roles I played is that the Senate had determined how they wanted our case presented and I was probably the lead voice in objecting. (Senate Majority Leader) Trent Lott and (Sen.) Rick Santorum came over and met with the 13 managers and Henry Hyde turned the debate over to me and so I argued with Rick and Trent pretty aggressively. It was an intense discussion, and afterwards there was a vote 13-0 to not do a presentation the way the Senate wanted it done. But Henry Hyde decided to go along with the Senate. What happened then is apparently what is going to happen in this trial (opening arguments and questions, then a decision to possibly call witnesses). I thought it was an abomination then and it is now actually the standard. So for Democrats to whine about the failure to gather evidence during the impeachment process is hilarious to me.
DN: What specifically was your concern that prompted you to threaten to resign?
CC: In the impeachment of judges those hearings are real trials. The judge has the opportunity to ask witnesses questions and the prosecutors get to cross-examine the witnesses, etc. That’s where you get the truth. The impeachment of a president of course is very different because of the national interest. It’s not a trial. It was totally and uncontrollably ad hoc. There was no coherence to it. Over the course of the questions the case got big. But no one could say, “Oh my goodness, he said that? That’s crazy!” None of that ever happened. You had the acts of the president described by 13 different people in 13 different ways based on questions that came from random senators and so you really couldn’t say here’s the case.
DN; What kept you from resigning?
CC: I wrote to Henry and told him I was going to resign because this was not a fair trial. It was not a trial at all. Henry Hyde was a great man and he said, “I’m asking you as a personal favor to please not resign.” I did say directly to him, because of the esteem in which I held him, I would not resign. But the trial was not a reasonable trial and the one the Senate is going to have is only reasonable because it’s the precedent. It’s a good way to just be done with it.
DN: In retrospect would it have been better not to have 13 different managers each giving opening and closing statements?
CC: The opening and closing speeches were not orchestrated or coordinated. But they were powerful especially taken together as a whole. With that said, I think you’re better off with a single, eloquent speaker who can powerfully pull the whole piece together,
DN: Was there such a speaker on your team?
CC: I would laughingly say me, but that’s clearly not the case. We had a bunch of guys who were very eloquent. Henry Hyde was very thoughtful and eloquent when he made his pitches. But in a short speech it’s hard to make your point in a way that moves audiences.
DN: What was the argument that you made in your opening and closing statements?
CC: It was very different from the other managers. I challenged the way the Senate was doing the trial, that it was impossible to make the case that would be compelling to senators to consider the crimes that President (Clinton) had committed and the weight that had for society as a whole. In my presentation in the House I played a video clip of President John F. Kennedy saying, “If I don’t keep my oath of office, then this great constitutional system that we live under will begin to crumble.” And I believe that’s profoundly true. And it was the duty of the Senate to consider that effect.
DN: What role will Chief Justice John Roberts play in the trial?
CC: He presides. In the case of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the Clinton trial, he said almost nothing, did almost nothing, intervened almost zero. When senators asked questions, they submitted them to the chief justice who read the questions. One of the parties in the president’s group or from our group needed to respond, then the other side got a chance to respond. And that was the trial. Not exactly the way you could get the truth out of people..
DN: What should people be aware of as they watch or read about the trial that they might not otherwise notice?
CC: The reason the president wants a trial to call witnesses is because he’s convinced American people understand the Democrats have shabby and thin allegations against him and he’ll be vindicated. He would really like to have his counsel cross-examine new witnesses the House didn’t deem worthy of calling or pursuing in court. I think (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell thinks he can’t control that and he’s kind of a control guy. And he’ll want to get this thing over with as little disturbance as possible. I think the Senate is going to go ahead with their rules based upon the precedent in the Clinton impeachment and get it over with and get it out of our faces.
DN: Is there any moment in the trial that still stands out to you 20 years later?
CC: I can’t think of a particular moment, but I will say the people defending Clinton had a very difficult task and they handled it marvelously well. They dealt with the case issue by issue in a way that was very workmanlike.
DN: Can you remember how you felt when the votes were being taken? Did you feel like you lost or failed?
CC: It was a great relief we got 50 votes on one of the articles (obstruction of justice). Personally, I felt it was a failure because we hadn’t managed the process in that we didn’t hire enough people to gather corroborating evidence. We didn’t take the initiative on the investigation. We didn’t have a strategy for how we would do press. I literally did half of all the TV shows that were done because I was willing to. And my reputation in Utah diminished because of that and people saw me as a harsh, negative person. I did express my views about the impeachment as aggressively as I thought was appropriate. But we had managers who were more politically vulnerable and the process is political, after all.