[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, Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman, Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer (co-authored), Jill Wine-Banks, and Walter Pincus.]
Sidney Blumenthal’s evidence-based analysis of the political conditions for impeaching President Donald Trump, compared to the cases of Presidents Nixon and Clinton, has generated a productive set of conversations. Blumenthal’s bottom line is that the failed impeachment of Clinton bears no relevance to the situation with Trump and that the successful impeachment process against Nixon does offer a valuable guide for how the impeachment of Trump would likely unfold. I am in full agreement with Blumenthal’s analysis of the Clinton comparison, but offer a more mixed assessment of the comparison with Nixon.
I. Compared to Clinton
I am convinced that the Clinton case should be retired as any basis for predicting how the impeachment of Trump would proceed, particularly if the empirical claim is that the history of Clinton’s case tells us that the impeachment process would likely generate greater political support for the president.
In addition to the factors Blumenthal identifies, significant differences between the two cases include:
1. Mueller vs. Starr
Blumenthal shows persuasively why the popularity of the two presidents (Clinton vs. Trump) and the substance of the underling charges make the two cases largely incomparable. What’s more, the public profiles of the prosecutors who developed the record against each president are far more compelling in the case against Trump (Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York vs. Kenneth Starr), and they will be seen as relatively nonpartisan.
That said, as many things with Trump, such variables are not stable and can become highly polarized. Trump supporters can fairly easily shift again to think of Mueller as unfair and partisan, if they haven’t swallowed that idea already.
2. The Unindicted President
Trump would enter the impeachment arena already under the cloud of multiple crimes of obstruction, evidenced in the Mueller report. He would also enter having been effectively accused in the Southern District of New York as an unindicted principal who directed illegal hush money payments to get elected. The latter does not resonate with the American public as much as the alleged abuses of power in office, but it does help settle the public view of Trump as comfortable with ordering crimes to be committed on his behalf.
II. Compared to Nixon
As for the comparison to Nixon, the most significant lesson, demonstrated by Blumenthal’s analysis, is that Americans’ views will shift over time with public education, a process facilitated by the high drama and visual nature of impeachment hearings. That fact alone shows what’s wrong with the position (recently voiced by Sen. Mitt Romney) that that an insufficient number of Americans currently supporting impeachment is a reason not to move forward. Such a claim assumes Americans’ views are static. Research shows, for example, that the more Americans know what’s in the Mueller report, the greater their belief that President Trump engaged in wrongdoing. Impeachment hearings built around the report would presumably have a similar effect.
What’s more, some of the principal witnesses like Don McGahn also happen to be darlings of the Federalist Society and conservatives have people like McGahn to thank for such things as reconstituting the Supreme Court. There’s good social psychology research to suggest that having someone from within an ideological group communicate the facts is a way to break through in situations where facts don’t otherwise cognitively matter. The McGahn hearing, in particular, could make an indelible mark on the public consciousness.
That said, the White House will also be able to run the clock on holding these hearings, as the ongoing battle over McGahn’s testimony demonstrates. The longer it takes for such hearings to take place, the more disinterested the public may become about the matter.
There are also important factors working in Trump’s favor compared to Nixon:
1. Strength of the economy
The Pew Research Center’s analysis of the Nixon period, which Blumenthal includes in his piece, notes that public anxiety about inflation was a possible explanatory factor in Nixon’s drop in popularity. The economy under Trump is obviously different (though income inequality and financial insecurity may yet wreak political havoc for this White House).
2. Media control
Trump may not only think that during impeachment hearings he has a tale to tell of himself as the victim, as Blumenthal aptly put it. Trump also has a direct and unmediated line of communication to tell this tale to Republicans/his base through Fox News, his own social media platforms, and other right wing media outlets. Nixon didn’t have anything like that.
3. Republican support
Although Trump’s overall popularity rating is historically low for any president, he appears to have a much greater lock on the Republican Party than Nixon, he is not a lame duck president like Nixon was, and we are much closer to a new primary season in which Trump is feared by Republicans running for reelection. In these respects, it will be harder to show that impeachment hearings are bipartisan and Trump may have a ready group of Republicans willing to gum up the hearings and come to his defense in the public arena.
Blumenthal rightly notes that several Trump associates have been indicted which makes the president’s case even more like Nixon’s situation. It is not widely understood, however, that the Trump circle’s actions were related to the same nucleus of crimes that implicate the president. Public education will need to show to Americans that many of these other crimes, including lying to federal authorities, were connected to the president’s obstruction of the Russia investigation.
* * *
In sum, I offer here only a comparison of the Nixon, Clinton, and Trump cases, trying to identify the most salient differences and similarities across the cases. I do not reach a final conclusion. This is the kind of assessment that someone supporting impeachment or a staunch defender of Trump would each need to consider. Thanks to Blumenthal’s analysis, we can set aside the Clinton case as a guide. More important answers lie in how similar or different Trump’s situation is to the predicament Nixon faced in the terminal stages of his presidency.