Why The Times Editorial Board Supports an Impeachment Inquiry

As the Times editorial board argues in support of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, it seems like a moment to address two obvious questions.

Why is the board making this argument now?

And: what is an editorial board in the first place?

I’m going to take the questions in reverse order, because the answer to the second provides some context for the answer to the first. Also, the second question is one I and my colleagues get asked constantly, including within the glass walls of The Times.

The editorial board is composed of 14 writers and editors drawn from the Times Opinion department, which also includes opinion columnists, Op-Ed editors and others. The Opinion department is independent of the Times newsroom, with a separate mission but the same standards for fact. The first anyone in the newsroom learned of the board’s editorial about the impeachment inquiry was when we posted it to The Times’s website at 5 a.m. on Friday.

The purpose of Times Opinion is to supply the wide-ranging debate about big ideas that a diverse democracy needs. Just in the last couple of days, we’ve had writers arguing against the impeachment inquiry and arguing for it. Amid that debate, the role of the editorial board is to provide Times readers with a long-range view formed not by one person’s expertise and experience but ballasted by certain institutional values that have evolved across more than 150 years. That’s why the editorials, unlike other articles at The Times, appear without a byline. I’ve always believed that strong institutions, like strong families, are meant to transmit principles across generations; the work of The Times’s editorial board has reflected the principles both of its members and of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which has supplied the publishers who have overseen the board’s work — sometimes day to day, sometimes only on the occasion of momentous news — for five generations.

Because the role of the editorial board can be confusing, particularly to readers who don’t know The Times well, the board, in consultation with the current publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, has developed a statement of its guiding values. It can be found here.

The editorial board is an institutional voice, but it is not the voice of the institution as a whole. That’s a crucial distinction that often gets lost. The board doesn’t speak for the newsroom. How could it? The newsroom is made up of journalists whose own opinions vary, and whose job it is to set those opinions aside in the honest pursuit and presentation of the truth. I happened to be a White House reporter for The Times during the impeachment inquiry into Bill Clinton. The board, then under Howell Raines, supported the inquiry (though not, in the end, the impeachment). I used to read those editorials and marvel at the crackle of the prose. But the editorials certainly didn’t speak for me or affect my reporting, and when the Clinton people complained to me from time to time about them, I’d just shrug and tell them to call Howell. No, I didn’t know the number.

The board meets at least twice each week to debate how to address significant questions in the news in accordance with positions it has taken over the decades. We try to keep in mind the big questions we’ve gotten wrong in the past — opposing women’s suffrage — to cultivate some humility and caution. Who can know what arguments we think obvious today history might judge harshly.

It’s in that spirit that the board has repeatedly over the last couple of years taken up the question of whether to call for an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump. We reviewed Times editorials during the previous three impeachment inquiries, into Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Mr. Clinton in 1998. The conclusions varied with the circumstances, but the editorials shared a deep reluctance, if not aversion, to the impeachment process itself, a view for which I had a lot of sympathy from having watched an impeachment up close. Words like “agony,” “divisive” and “traumatic” are salted through these previous editorials.

Until this week, each time we discussed the possibility of an impeachment inquiry we concluded that it was too extreme a measure to be warranted. Some warned during the Clinton impeachment that the inquiry process risked becoming routine — that what the founders envisioned only as a last-ditch measure to protect democracy could become just another political weapon. That’s a concern we take very seriously. Just opening an inquiry — let alone recommending impeachment — is a very big deal.

In general, the board reaches its conclusions by consensus, though in matters where there is deep disagreement we sometimes have to call a vote; that never happened in the case of our impeachment debates about Mr. Trump, because for all the shouting and suspicion in Washington and elsewhere, the system seemed to be working. The courts were hearing criminal allegations against Mr. Trump and his associates; the special counsel, Robert Mueller, was ultimately able to interview most of the witnesses he sought. Thanks to the aggressive reporting of the press, voters were learning enough about Mr. Trump to deliver a free and fair verdict on his administration in the next election. That’s how democracy is supposed to render judgment on politicians.

That changed over the past week with the revelations that Mr. Trump pressed the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. Mr. Trump seemed to be using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the next election. If Mr. Trump was abusing his office to distort the next election result, the voters wouldn’t be able to make a free choice. The only constitutional recourse, then, was an impeachment inquiry, to air all the relevant facts and permit Congress to consider whether the president should be removed from office.

We thought that Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, was wrong to announce the inquiry on Tuesday. The president had said he’d release the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president on Wednesday. The acting intelligence chief was due to testify on Thursday, and perhaps, despite White House resistance, we’d learn something more about the contents of the whistle-blower’s complaint that apparently described the call. It was just possible, as some lawmakers suggested, that new revelations might clear the whole business up. Instead, they substantially darkened the picture. We didn’t need to take a vote.

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