[Editor’s note: Just Security is publishing a series in conversation with Sidney Blumenthal’s “An Open Memo: Comparison of Clinton Impeachment, Nixon Impeachment and Trump Pre-Impeachment.” Other authors in the series include John Dean, Ryan Goodman, Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman, Walter Pincus, and Jill Wine-Banks.]
Politicians naturally look to the past to inform their actions in the present, but all too often, they draw the wrong lessons from history.
A large portion of the Democratic Party now believes that President Donald Trump has abused, and continues to abuse, the powers of his office, but the party is divided on how best to proceed. Some congressional Democrats worry that any effort to impeach the president will follow the same path as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, leaving the chief executive in office with his powers only strengthened further. Many Democrats, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, lived through that period. As a result, the events of the 1990s deeply inform how they think about the current situation.
Sidney Blumenthal is correct, however, to push back against this line of historical reasoning. Blumenthal, who had a front row seat to the Clinton drama, understands that there are major differences between these two instances. For one, Clinton was much more popular than Trump, having soundly won reelection in 1996 and improving his approval ratings, largely by drawing marked contrasts between himself and the Republican extremists on Capitol Hill. At the same time, the case against Clinton was much flimsier than the one pending against Trump. Clinton was charged with perjuring himself over a lie about his relationship with a White House intern. President Trump is being investigated for obstructing an investigation into a major effort by an overseas government to interfere with the 2016 election, with the president’s campaign receiving most of the assistance. While it is not yet a clear majority, polls show that the public’s support for impeachment is much higher today than it was after the release of the Starr report. It is, instead, comparable to the moment when Democrats launched impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in early 1974.
Despite the stark lack of similarities between the two cases for impeachment, the specter of the Clinton struggle hangs over Democratic deliberations today. This political miscalculation has become so congealed in Washington that it has led otherwise talented politicians to miss major differences and push aside obvious reasons that the House has an obligation, regardless of the risks, to move forward with this process. Many forget that the impeachment process itself has the power to change public opinion. In 1998, House Republicans opted not to hold televised hearings to make the case for Clinton’s impeachment, believing that the graphic details of the Starr Report would suffice in swaying a skeptical public. But in 1973 and 1974, congressional Democrats patiently presented the evidence against the president and, in so doing, convinced the country that Nixon needed to go. The contents of the material discovered in the Nixon investigation were deeply disturbing to the public, revealing a serious pattern of presidential abuse of power, which in turn solidified support for Congress taking action.
As Blumenthal notes, there were clear risks confronting the congressional Democrats who made the decision to impeach President Nixon, but they pushed aside the doubts and did their duty. They held a reckless president accountable, forcing legislators to take a stand on the president’s misdeeds and, indeed, forcing the country itself to live up to its constitutional ideals and democratic values. In the end, the party did not suffer as a result of that decision and instead saw its standing soar in the next election. More important, the nation itself was strengthened by the impeachment process, with its renewed emphasis on the rule of law and the balance of powers.
Images: National Archives & Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons and White House/Wikimedia Commons