[Editor’s note: Just Security will publish a series in conversation with Blumenthal’s Open Memo including from John Dean, Ryan Goodman, Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman, Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer (co-authored), Walter Pincus, and Jill Wine-Banks.]
Some commentators and politicians have suggested that any movement that leads to President Donald Trump’s impeachment will necessarily follow the straight and narrow political path of the Clinton impeachment in which the president’s popularity inexorably rose. President Bill Clinton’s case is widely assumed to set the terms for understanding Trump’s. But the facts and history instead indicate that the Clinton case bears little if any relevance to the Trump one, while the Nixon case shows similarity to Trump’s, including how President Richard Nixon, a far more popular president than the abysmally rated Trump, collapsed in public opinion as the drive to his impeachment unfolded.
In 1973 and 1974, the Democrats attacked a once-mighty but now badly weakened president with a strong case for impeachment. Nixon resigned.
In 1998 and 1999, the Republicans attacked a mightily popular president on a political upswing in his second term with a politically contrived and feeble case for impeachment. Republicans lost.
In 2019, the Democrats confront the weakest president in modern history with a stronger case for impeachment than the one against Nixon.
Since the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report, support for impeachment of Trump has already risen to a near majority, 45 percent, with 42 percent opposed, according to the latest Ipsos-Reuters poll. That phenomenon never occurred during the Clinton impeachment, not once. On the contrary, in the Clinton case there was never any increase at any point in support for impeachment, which remained opposed by a large and solid majority of about two-thirds or more. Clinton began the impeachment process at 66 percent approval and ended the impeachment process at 66 percent approval.
By contrast, Nixon began 1973 as a president reelected with an overwhelming majority and winning 49 states. He stood at 68 percent approval. Two weeks before his second inauguration, Watergate burglars pled guilty to conspiracy and other crimes, which soon triggered congressional inquiries into Watergate. By May, when the Senate Watergate hearings began, Nixon’s standing in public opinion began to erode, a decline accelerated at each stage by his stonewalling of Congress and the courts. Public support for impeachment of Nixon, however, did not reach the level at which it already stands for Trump until near May 1974, a full year after the Senate Watergate hearings. In short, Trump now stands in public opinion where Nixon did after Senate hearings, after John Dean and others testified, after the Nixon tapes were exposed.
Trump’s popularity is the worst and weakest of any president ever recorded since the beginning of polls charting presidential approval ratings. He is the most consistently unpopular president in modern recorded history. Trump is the only president never to hit 50 percent approval. Recent events involving Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s stonewalling of Congress’ constitutional mandate for executive oversight, paralleling the Nixon dynamic, are damaging the president further, driving his numbers deeper into his base, like Nixon under siege. There is, however, no meaningful comparison whatsoever to the Clinton case.
In Nixon’s case the charges of impeachment described the most serious to that point in American history ever brought against a president: subversion of democracy, bribery, and obstruction of justice. Forty administration officials, campaign advisers and close associates of Nixon involved in Watergate were indicted or convicted.
In Clinton’s case the charges of impeachment were transparently partisan in origin, twisted and insubstantial, and consistently rejected by the vast majority of the public. Not a single White House official or close associate involved in these events was indicted—not one.
In Trump’s case over 800 former federal prosecutors stated that if he were not a sitting president he would be indicted for obstruction of justice on multiple felony charges. Already seven Trump White House officials, campaign advisers and close associates have been indicted or convicted. His personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has been leading the public defense of the president, is directly implicated by name in the Mueller Report for potential involvement in witness tampering.
Timeline: Clinton Impeachment
October 30, 1998: Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich launches a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz less than a week before the midterm elections targeting President Clinton.
November 3, 1998: Democrats win five House seats in the midterm elections, the first time the incumbent presidential party in its president’s second term midterm made gains since 1934.
December 8, 1998: Opening of House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings.
December 19, 1998: House votes to impeach President Clinton.
February 12, 1999: Senate acquits President Clinton.
Clinton’s approval numbers throughout impeachment, according to the Gallup Poll:
At the time of the Gingrich negative advertising attack, Clinton was at 66 approval, 30 disapproval.
Just after the House Judiciary Committee opened its hearings, Clinton was at 64 approval, 34 disapproval.
When the House impeached Clinton, his approval rose to 73 and disapproval fell to 25.
When the Senate acquitted Clinton, his approval was 68, disapproval 30.
One week after the impeachment acquittal, Clinton stood at 66 approval, 30 disapproval, exactly where he was at the beginning of the process. His numbers ranged within the margin of error except for the jump to 73 when he was impeached.
Number of White House officials and Clinton associates indicted by Special Counsel Kenneth W. Starr for misconduct or wrongdoing in office: 0
Timeline: Nixon, Watergate, and Impeachment
January 8, 1972: Watergate burglars plead guilty.
January 20, 1973: Nixon inaugurated for a second term.
April 6, 1973: White House counsel John Dean begins cooperating with Watergate prosecutors.
April 30, 1973: Senior White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resign; Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigns.
May 17, 1973: Televised Senate Watergate hearings begin.
October 20, 1973: Saturday Night Massacre; Nixon orders firing of special prosecutor, Attorney General Eliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus resign.
November 1, 1973: Leon Jaworski appointed new special prosecutor.
January 28, 1974: Nixon campaign aide Herbert Porter pleads guilty to perjury.
February 25, 1974: Nixon personal counsel Herbert Kalmbach pleads guilty to two charges of illegal campaign activities.
March 1, 1974: In an indictment against seven former presidential aides, delivered to Judge Sirica together with a sealed briefcase intended for the House Committee on the Judiciary, Nixon is named as an unindicted co-conspirator.
March 18, 1974: Judge Sirica orders the grand jury’s sealed report to be sent to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
April 5, 1974: Dwight Chapin convicted of lying to a grand jury.
April 16, 1974: Special Prosecutor Jaworski issues a subpoena for 64 White House tapes.
April 30, 1974: White House releases edited transcripts of the Nixon tapes, but the House Judiciary Committee insists the actual tapes must be turned over.
May 9, 1974: Impeachment hearings begin before the House Judiciary Committee.
July 24, 1974: United States v. Nixon decided: Nixon is ordered to give up tapes to investigators.
Congress moves to impeach Nixon.
● July 27 to July 30, 1974: House Judiciary Committee passes Articles of Impeachment.
● Early August 1974: A previously unknown tape from June 23, 1972 (recorded a few days after the break-in) documenting Nixon and Haldeman’s formulating a plan to block investigations is released. This recording later became known as the “Smoking Gun.”
● Key Republican Senators tell Nixon that enough votes exist to convict him.
August 9, 1974: Nixon resigns from office.
Number of Nixon administration officials indicted or imprisoned in Watergate related crimes: 40
Nixon’s Poll Ratings Through Watergate
The Pew Research Center states:
“Nixon had won reelection in 1972 by a landslide and began his second term with a lofty 68% Gallup Poll approval rating in January 1973. But the Watergate scandal — which started with an effort to bug the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel and subsequent efforts to cover it up — quickly took a heavy toll on those ratings, especially when coupled with a ramp-up in public concerns about inflation. By April, a resounding 83% of the American public had heard or read about Watergate, as the president accepted the resignations of his top aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. And in turn, Nixon’s approval ratings fell to 48%.”
Timeline: Trump, Indictments, Convictions, Barr, and Mueller Report
October 5, 2017: Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian agent Joseph Mifsud.
December 1, 2017: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
February 16, 2018: Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian organizations, including the Internet Research Agency, a de facto organ of Russian military intelligence, indicted for conspiracy to steal American citizens’ identities, create and promote false social media and subvert the 2016 federal election to benefit Trump.
February 16, 2018: Lawyer Alex van der Zwaan pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and other crimes.
February 22, 2018: Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort indicted on 32 counts of money laundering and bank fraud.
February 23, 2018: Former Trump deputy campaign manager and Manafort partner, Rick Gates, pleads guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators. Manafort indicted for secretly retaining a team of foreign agents to lobby in the U.S.
June 8, 2018: Alleged Russian military intelligence agent and Paul Manafort business partner Konstantin Kilimnik indicted, along with Manafort, for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
July 13, 2018: Twelve Russian intelligence officers indicted for the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign to benefit Trump.
August 21, 2018: Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen pleads guilty to tax fraud, bank fraud and campaign finance violations in making illegal payments to silence two women for their affairs with Trump. Trump, named as “Individual 1,” is an unindicted co-conspirator in the crimes for which Cohen will serve a prison term.
August 31, 2018: Lawyer Samuel Patten, a Manafort associate, who funneled foreign money into Trump’s inaugural, pleads guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent.
January 25, 2019: Longtime Trump adviser and dirty trickster Roger Stone indicted for lying about his relationship with Wikileaks, which served as the agent for Russian military intelligence in transmitting stolen DNC and Clinton campaign emails to benefit Trump, and for perjury, witness tampering and obstruction.
March 13, 2019: Manafort sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for financial crimes.
March 22, 2019: Attorney General William Barr in a four-page letter to Congress distorts the content and conclusions of the Mueller Report, claiming that Trump is exonerated.
April 18, 2019: Mueller Report in redacted form delivered to the Congress; Barr holds a press conference reiterating his false summary.
April 30, 2018: House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) sends a criminal referral to the Justice Department for informal Trump campaign adviser Erik Prince, who “willfully misled” the committee during 2017 testimony.
May 1, 2019: Barr reiterates his false characterization of the Mueller Report before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
May 8, 2019: The House Judiciary Committee cites Barr for contempt of Congress for refusing to release the redacted portions of the report and underlying documents to the committee.
Number of Trump White House officials and associates indicted or convicted so far (excluding citation of “Individual 1” as an unindicted co-conspirator): 7
Trump’s approval ratings since the first Barr appearance:
March 26-April 1: Trump’s approval was 42, disapproval 53, in the Ipso/Reuters poll.
April 17-23: Trump approval 40, disapproval 53, Ipsos-Reuters.
May 6-7: Trump approval 39, disapproval 55, Ipsos-Reuters.
May 6-7: Approval for impeachment jumps five points since mid-April to 45, with 42 opposed, Ipsos-Reuters.
First, the Trump numbers simply do not parallel the pattern of the Clinton numbers. They bear no resemblance. Comparing the two is a fruitless exercise that inevitably leads to faulty conclusions. At no point during the Clinton impeachment did public approval of impeachment ever climb out of the 30s, while disapproval remained unwaveringly constant at about two-thirds opposition, more or less the same level as Clinton’s approval. Clinton remained the most consistently popular president in his second term since President Eisenhower.
Second, the Nixon experience reveals that the combination of concerted congressional inquiry, public hearings, the release of information, and Nixon’s stonewalling steadily drove his numbers down. The more the public knew of Nixon’s crimes through public televised hearings, the more rapidly Nixon’s poll numbers crumbled.
In light of Trump’s historically low standing in the polls and the history of past impeachments, Trump’s putative strengths are greatly overestimated. Trump is the most unpopular president since the Gallup Poll began recording presidential approval levels with Franklin D. Roosevelt. While in some polls during the period since Barr’s first presentation he briefly climbed to the mid-40s, he has descended again. The Ipsos-Reuters poll showing 45 percent support for impeachment, when there is no impeachment committee, and before any congressional hearings of witnesses, shows the start of a trend of declining approval as the Trump crisis deepens, the opposite of the Clinton dynamic. The role of Attorney General Barr, a markedly unattractive figure, emerging as the leader of coverup, and Trump’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the House, are unique factors for which there are no parallels with the Clinton experience, though there are obvious analogies to Nixon.
In conclusion, the Clinton impeachment and the Trump response to the Mueller Report appear to have little if no correlation. The Clinton example as a predictor should be dispensed with in considering Trump.
The Nixon case, however, offers apt political comparison. Nixon’s collapse was driven by the unwavering insistence of the Congress for information through public hearings and the calling of witnesses before initiating an impeachment; Nixon’s stonewalling strategies and legal resistance; and the disclosure of facts that Nixon was attempting to coverup to the public.
Trump is no less paranoid and vindictive than Nixon. Unlike Nixon, he gains pleasure from his provocations. But his outrageousness should not be mistaken for strength. If he seems to be taunting the Democrats to impeach him it is a desperate act of miscalculation. He has adopted his stonewalling out of sheer necessity in order to maintain his survival. Throughout his career, following the advice of his early attorney Roy Cohn, he has adopted the strategy of resisting court orders and suing everyone to put them on the defensive. He has been playing for time since he first hired Roy Cohn. Now perhaps he imagines an impeachment will suit his tale of himself as the victim and his antagonists as unfair. But that was also the psychology underlying Nixon’s political strategy in Watergate. Trump proceeds from a much weaker position than Nixon. He depends entirely on his stonewalling. He hangs by a thread.