[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, Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer (co-authored), and Jill Wine-Banks.]
Impeachment of a president is a political act by Congress requiring time, facts, and bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.
I covered Watergate and the Nixon impeachment process when I was executive editor of The New Republic and op-ed contributor to The Washington Post. I was on The Post during the Clinton impeachment, but not covering it. Currently, I write occasional columns for The Cipher Brief website about the Trump administration.
From my perspective, today’s situation is far different from those past two occasions, based on the three criteria I cited above.
I agree with Sidney Blumenthal that the Clinton case “bears little if any relevance” to Trump’s situation, but the Nixon history does. However, I draw very different conclusions from the lessons of the process that finally resulted in Nixon’s resignation.
Look first at the timing.
Preceding any talk of impeachment there was the highly publicized Watergate break-in in mid-1972, a recognized crime. The Watergate burglars’ guilty plea in January 1973 was followed by a steady stream of stories in The Washington Post as Woodward and Bernstein circled around involvement of the Nixon campaign and White House personnel in the break-in and a cover-up of their roles.
The process preceding impeachment was lengthy. Senate Watergate hearings began in April 1973; the first Watergate prosecutor was named in May 1973; and in July 1973 the White House tapes were publicly disclosed, promising definitive evidence if obtained and made public.
It was not until February 6, 1974, almost a year after the Senate investigation and public hearings had taken place, that the House passed a resolution giving the Judiciary Committee authority to investigate possible impeachment of President Nixon. At that point, the sealed Watergate grand jury material was provided to the Judiciary Committee by Federal District Court Judge Sirica.
In March 1974, the Watergate special prosecutor indicted all Nixon’s top White House personnel and several presidential 1972 campaign aides, including Attorney General John Mitchell.
Even with all this factual background, the House Judiciary Committee spent three more months investigating before holding its first hearings in May 1974.
Perhaps most important, the House articles of impeachment against Nixon were drafted and passed in late July 1974, with the assistance of four moderate Republicans (emphasis added).
Even then, a successful vote in the Senate was not anticipated, until release of the “smoking gun tape,” on August 5, 1974. It proved that Nixon had ordered the attempted cover up of Republican involvement in the Watergate break-in. Only then did Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) join Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ari.) in telling Nixon that enough Republicans in the Senate would guarantee impeachment articles would pass, so he should resign.
Today’s situation is far different.
There have been guilty pleas and convictions of Trump aides, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not indict any Trump campaign aides for cooperating or conspiring with the Russians during the 2016 campaign, and he failed to directly charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
Although Trump was named as directing Michael Cohen to violate the campaign finance law in Cohen’s indictment, trial, and judge’s ruling, all the facts on Trump’s role are not in the public record. The president has denied the allegation, and Cohen is an exceedingly flawed witness.
If impeachment is to move forward, more time is needed for investigations to develop additional and compelling facts, which will then have to be disclosed in public hearings. Without the equivalent of Watergate’s “smoking gun” tape, chances appear nil in getting Republicans in the House and Senate to break ranks, as they did with Nixon.
Today’s Republican senators and congressmen act as though they owe their first allegiance to party and therefore to this president.
That’s the main difference between Trump’s situation and Nixon’s in the 1970s — the partisan divide, not just among members of Congress but among the political activists at home.
I briefly worked in the Senate at that time for Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and saw senators deal with a subject like the Vietnam War first hand.
Back then, on Constitutional issues, they acted first as members of an equal branch of government, and only then as members of one party or the other, with an eye on voters back home
In sum, based on what I see today, any chance of Trump leaving office before January 20, 2021, will depend not on impeachment, but entirely on voters who turn out on November 3, 2020.