From Nixon to Trump, Zoe Lofgren Is Democrats’ Memory on Impeachment
WASHINGTON — In the summer of 1974, a young law student named Zoe Lofgren, working for a member of the House Judiciary Committee, drafted what she thought was an ill-advised article of impeachment charging President Richard M. Nixon with usurping the power of Congress by concealing the bombing of Cambodia.
The committee rejected it. “It didn’t pass and it shouldn’t have passed,” Ms. Lofgren said.
Now Ms. Lofgren is Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a senior lawmaker on the judiciary panel and the panel’s only member to have participated in all three modern presidential impeachments. And much like 45 years ago, she has emerged as a voice of restraint as her party barrels toward a divisive and partisan impeachment of President Trump.
On Wednesday evening, the Judiciary Committee opened its formal debate on two articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of justice — stemming from the president’s campaign to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. To Ms. Lofgren, who has presented herself as the party’s institutional memory on impeachment, the articles were a triumph of facts over emotion.
“I think they are well crafted,” she said in an interview, in her careful, measured way, “and, unfortunately, supported by the evidence.”
Democrats on the liberal left — including the panel’s chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York — had urged an expansion of the articles to include an obstruction of justice charge against Mr. Trump related to his efforts to thwart the inquiry by Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Ms. Lofgren disagreed. (So did Ms. Pelosi, whose view won out in the end. )
A lawyer who prides herself on sticking to the evidence, Ms. Lofgren, 71, said in an interview that Democrats had not adequately made the case to the country that Mr. Trump had obstructed justice. And she said that “in retrospect, it probably was a mistake” for them to have relied on Mr. Mueller — whose much-anticipated appearance before the Judiciary Committee over the summer did little to change public perception — to make the case for them.
“She did her part in terms of making sure that we move forward with the most solid evidence,” said Representative Val B. Demings, Democrat of Florida, who like Ms. Lofgren spent last weekend holed up with fellow committee members, debating the articles, practicing their parts in the impeachment hearings and eating pizza.
“She didn’t wrestle anybody to the ground, saying, ‘Oh, we should only have these,’” Ms. Demings continued. “She did talk a lot about the words that were used, the evidence that we looked at and the most solid case possible.”
Ms. Lofgren is something of an outlier on a panel that she concedes is “one of the most partisan on Capitol Hill.” Her politics are more moderate than Mr. Nadler’s, and she prides herself on working across party lines, and is viewed as an ally of tech companies in Silicon Valley, which she represents.
But she holds very progressive views on immigration, one of her signature issues, and is passionate about protecting the rights of farmworkers. She spent Wednesday achieving something rare in Washington: passage of a bipartisan bill overhauling the nation’s agriculture labor laws, the first in more than 30 years. The Judiciary Committee’s impeachment markup was set for Wednesday evening partly to accommodate her.
Ms. Lofgren was a member of the Judiciary Committee when it voted along party lines to impeach President Bill Clinton, and she worries about a repeat. Democrats, she said, are now faced with two “bad choices”: pushing ahead with a highly partisan vote, or allowing Mr. Trump’s behavior to go unchecked.
In the interview, she said she had been quietly reaching out to colleagues across the aisle.
“I have not pressed anybody on a vote; I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said, adding, “People are thinking, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to vote that way.”
But when the Judiciary Committee convened its session Wednesday night, she laced into Republicans, invoking what she called one of her “most vivid memories” of the Watergate era: the moment that Charles E. Wiggins, then a Republican congressman from California and Nixon’s chief defender, concluded that Nixon had lied to him and turned on the president.
“I’ve been waiting for Republican members here to have their Chuck Wiggins moment,” she said.
Like Ms. Pelosi, who counts Ms. Lofgren as a member of her small circle of “kitchen cabinet” advisers, Ms. Lofgren resisted an impeachment inquiry for months — even after Mr. Mueller issued his report outlining at least 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice — and embraced it only after it became clear that Mr. Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine to help him win re-election.
Her straightforward, just-the-facts manner has, perhaps paradoxically, landed her on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, which more frequently features the most strident voices in both parties. Ms. Lofgren usually shuns the Sunday shows — she prefers to fly home to California to see her husband, children and grandchildren — but lately, Ms. Pelosi’s office has been leaning on her to appear, in part because she represents the somber voice of reason the speaker wants Democrats to project.
In the Judiciary Committee, though, Ms. Lofgren is viewed with some suspicion by allies of Mr. Nadler, whom she challenged for the chairmanship after Democrats took the majority this year. In the interview, she said she was “not dissatisfied with the outcome” and that Mr. Nadler had her support.
But she demurred when asked if she thought he was doing a good job.
“I think it’s a very tough job,” she said. “It’s not easy to keep order when some members are disorderly.”
The daughter of a beer truck driver and a school cafeteria cook, Ms. Lofgren was raised in a solidly middle-class family in Palo Alto, Calif., home to Stanford University. While an undergraduate student there in the 1960s, she landed an internship with her local congressman, Don Edwards, a Democrat who served on the Judiciary Committee.
She continued through law school, returning in the summer of 1974, she said, ostensibly to work on a bankruptcy bill. But Watergate and impeachment consumed everything, and when Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan — who would go on to lead the panel (and who died in October) — insisted on writing an article of impeachment relating to Nixon’s handling of the bombing of Cambodia, Ms. Lofgren was drafted.
“People tried to talk him out of it and he would not be dissuaded, so I ended up writing it on a Friday night because the lawyers were busy working on things that were actually going to pass,” she said, adding that Mr. Conyers’s article was destined to fail because senior leaders of Congress had, in fact, been consulted on the bombing.
Once out of law school, Ms. Lofgren taught and practiced immigration law in San Jose, Calif., where she had moved with her husband, the lawyer John Marshall Collins. She first sought public office in the 1970s, winning election to the local community college school board, and later a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
In 1994, Ms. Lofgren was elected to Congress to succeed Mr. Edwards. She was the only Democrat to win a House seat in the West that year, as Newt Gingrich swept Republicans into the majority, turning out Democrats who had controlled the chamber for 40 years.
“We used to kid that she was the freshman Democratic class west of the Rockies,” Mr. Collins said.
Last week, when four constitutional scholars appeared before the judiciary panel, Ms. Lofgren brought with her the 528-page tome, published in August 1974, that provided the official record that would have formed the basis for Nixon’s impeachment had he not resigned to avoid it.
She said she had looked back to the report during the Clinton impeachment for guidance, and to more clearly understand what the founders envisioned when they set “high crimes and misdemeanors” as the criteria for impeachment.
“High crimes and misdemeanors is misbehavior that really undercuts the system of the Constitution and the government,” she said. “And you could commit a crime that doesn’t do that, or you could commit no crime that does that.”
Ms. Lofgren concluded that Mr. Clinton’s offense — committing perjury and obstructing justice by lying about his sexual affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, as described in graphic detail in a report by the special counsel, Ken Starr — did not rise to the level of impeachment, though she conceded he behaved improperly.
“Zoe is catholic — small c — in all areas of the law, and she is a great respecter of the law,” said John P. Flannery II, a former federal prosecutor who was special counsel to Ms. Lofgren. “So she does not embrace the notion that anybody can lie, or lie under oath. But the question we were looking at was, ‘Was what was contained in Starr’s report an impeachable offense?’”
At the time, Ms. Lofgren called Mr. Clinton’s impeachment “a partisan lynching,” warned of “a Republican overthrow of the government” and accused the House Judiciary Committee of “a brand of American fascism.”
That sounds a lot like the messaging Republicans are using today. Still, Ms. Lofgren sticks to her explanation: “Lying about sex is not a high crime and misdemeanor.”
With Mr. Trump almost certainly headed for impeachment next week, the California congresswoman said she had been asking herself a question: “If this fact situation had come out with a Democratic president, what would I be doing now?”
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