The impeachment theater on display today in the House, bracketed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s maudlin reading of Article I of the Constitution, and by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s ludicrous evocation of the Stalin purge trials to characterize the full House vote to establish impeachment rules and procedures, is increasingly looking like the first act of an almost certain impeachment of President Trump.
Unfortunately, if Democrats impeaching Trump on just the effort to extort an investigation of the Bidens by Ukraine’s government their goal, they’ll get their impeachment vote, but it will end up like the Clinton impeachment as a farcical trial in the Senate, perhaps even strengthening President Trump in next year’s presidential election contest.
The Democrats, that is to say, are following the Republican’s disastrous impeachment model, set in 1998-99 when they sought to oust President Clinton over a blow-job in the Oval Office, and ended up making him one of the most popular presidents in the history of the job.
Democrats should be looking instead to the Nixon impeachment, which obtained the desired result — removing a criminal president from office — without even having to go to a full vote of the House following passage of articles of impeachment by the House Judiciary Committee.
When one looks back at that impeachment effort, it almost seems incredible that Nixon was forced out of office. This was a president, remember, who in 1972 was re-elected to a second term by a landslide 60.7 percent of the popular vote to just 37.5 percent for his Democratic opponent Sen. George McGovern. Nixon won the electoral votes of 49 states, with only Massachusetts going for McGovern.
Congressional investigation into Nixon’s crimes began with the establishment of the so-called Watergate Committee, headed by Senator Sam Ervin. That committee’s public hearings into that scandal started on May 17, 1973, just six months after Nixon’s electoral triumph.
At the time, while Democrats had solid majorities in both houses of Congress, Nixon was still hugely popular, even as the early details of the Watergate break-in and of the cover-up of that tip-of-the-iceberg corruption in the Nixon White House and re-election campaign were starting to come out. At the time of his inauguration, Nixon’s popularity was at a peak of 67% in a Gallup poll.
By the time the Watergate Committee started its hearings, four months into his second term, his popularity had slumped to the mid-40s, about equal to his disapproval rating. As those hearings continued, his support continued to sink. By October 30, 1973, just short of a year after Nixon won re-election, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating possible impeachable crimes by the president, his support had slumped to 27 percent. (Contrary to assertions by today’s Congressional Republicans, who claim that an impeachment must start with a full vote by the House, it wasn’t until February 6, 1974, more than three months after its investigations began, that the Judiciary Committee went to the full House for a vote designating it as an Impeachment Committee.)
More importantly, though, even after the empowered Judiciary Committee began its work, and began issuing subpoenas for documents, tapes and testimony, it wasn’t until late July that it finally voted out three articles of impeachment. Those articles were for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress, but they each included a number of examples of the president’s impeachable (though perhaps not all criminal) behavior. Along the way, the committee also investigated and considered other impeachable offenses, drawing up but rejecting two other articles of impeachment.
This is important. When talk of impeaching Nixon first began, Republicans were up in arms defending the president, and even many Democrats were nervous and unconvinced. They had, after all, been trounced in the last election, and Nixon had won re-election decisively. But the hearings, with their dramatic testimony from Nixon White House and campaign staff, both in the Watergate and in the impeachment committees, provided a steady stream of disturbing information and criminality on the part of the president and his acolytes and appointees. It was a process that led to a steady decline in his popular (and Congressional) support until by the time those three impeachment articles were voted for by the Judiciary Committee, his approval ratings were down in the mid-20 percent range. Not surprisingly, those articles won the backing of even some Republicans on the committee.
There was no further action on Nixon’s impeachment because Republican leaders did some head-counting and went to the president with word that he would be impeached by the full House on those articles, with significant Republican support, and that he would lose a trial in the Senate, after which he would likely be indicted and likely convicted and sentenced to jail for his crimes.
It was an agonizing political process, though also gripping not just for those who wanted Nixon gone, but even for his backers, or former backers among the electorate.
It is precisely this process which Democrats need to copy in pursuing the eminently impeachment-deserving President Donald Trump.
It would be an historic mistake of epic proportions to go after this congenitally criminal and morally appalling president for just one issue — one which many Americans who have backed him will readily excuse him for. Indeed Trump’s withholding of Congressionally approved military aid to extort a foreign criminal investigation of a potential political opponent pales in comparison Nixon’s interference with the Vietnam peace talks or Reagan’s successful effort as a candidate to get Iran to delay release of the US embassy hostages until after the 1980 election, neither of which led to any impeachment hearings.
That’s not to say that Trump is not a uniquely dangerous threat to Constitutional government.
What the now fully empowered House Judiciary Committee needs to do, though, is to significantly expand its hearings to examine all the myriad impeachable crimes which this president is known or strongly suspected of having committed. That would include everything from lying to the American public, cheating on his taxes, obstructing justice on myriad occasions, suborning perjury from witnesses, paying bribes, profiting personally from his powers of office, violating election laws, and perhaps rape and assault as well.
The American people need all these impeachable deeds and misbehavior laid bare in all their gory detail over the next six-12 months. Trump’s support, currently languishing around 40 percent, will sink as time goes on, as the shameful behavior gets continuous exposure. As the evidence of his crimes mounts, the risk of his ending up in the clink, at least after he leaves office, will grows. Meanwhile, the likelihood of his winning re-election and escaping that fate will fades. The odds will then grow that he will choose the same option that Nixon chose: resignation with a pardon.
I obviously would like to see Trump removed from the White House, either by impeachment and conviction in the Senate, or by resignation. But I also believe, as I did in the case of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, that even if he survives impeachment, it is crucial for US democracy that impeachable crimes be called out for what they are, even if the perpetrator cannot be convicted by the Senate. (It is my contention, for example, that Obama committed serious impeachable crimes such as refusing to prosecute known the war criminals Bush and VP Dick Cheney, as well as violating the First and Fourth Amendments with his expanded use of NSA spying on Americans, as well as his illegal war on Libya. For these actions or non actions, he should have been impeached by the House.)
So far, it looks like the House, under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who single-handedly stymied efforts to impeach G.W. Bush (as well as crushing the sales of my 2006 book The Case for Impeachment!) by declaring in May 2006 that “impeachment is off the table,” is keeping a lid on any widening of the impeachment case against Trump.
If she persists in this wrong-headed strategy, she must take the blame for the disaster that will likely ensue, of a triumphal Trump declaring that he had been “cleared” by the Senate, and campaigning through next summer and fall against a Democratic Party he will accuse of being “obsessed with overturning the results of the last election.”