When I entered my teenage years in the 1970s, virtually no Americans could have been old enough to remember impeachment proceedings against a U.S. president. Now I have three under my belt, and there’s still some tread wear left in my tires.
Considering how long people live today, it may be the middle part of the 22nd century before impeachment is once again relegated to the history pages (or their digital equivalent). It may be even later than that if we keep impeaching presidents.
Unless something exceedingly peculiar happens – impeachment itself no longer qualifies – there will be an impeachment trial in the Senate for President Donald Trump sometime before Election Day. We had one for Bill Clinton, and we came close to having one for Richard Nixon before he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. He announced his decision to quit the prior evening on national television. I recall watching that speech in the full expectation that I would never see anything like it again.
Everyone makes youthful mistakes. This was one of mine.
Nixon himself saw the implications of lowering the bar to the removal of a sitting, duly elected president. Quitting, he said, would be “unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future.”
But Nixon quit anyway, because his impeachment and removal had become a foregone conclusion. Unlike the later cases of Clinton and Trump, Nixon lost the support of his own party in Congress – and of many of the voters who had elected him less than two years earlier.
One-third of the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee had already voted in favor of three articles of impeachment. Then, following a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Nixon, the president released a transcript of an Oval Office conversation that clearly showed he had conspired with his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, to get the CIA to block an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in, just six days after the break-in occurred.
The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Howard Baker of Tennessee (whom Nixon once considered appointing to the Supreme Court), was the one who asked the famous question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The “smoking gun” tape, as it came to be known, made it clear to everyone that Nixon knew everything that mattered virtually from the moment five men with ties to his reelection committee were caught trying to bug the opposition party’s headquarters.
The Clinton impeachment had its own smoking gun, in the form of a notorious blue dress. But where Nixon had tried to use the federal intelligence and law enforcement apparatus to thwart an investigation of his campaign’s clearly illegal bugging of his opponents, Clinton’s offenses struck most of his supporters as stemming from little more than embarrassment over a tawdry but consensual affair, which the courts needlessly permitted to emerge in an unrelated civil case over Clinton’s alleged nonconsensual harassment of a different woman.
So the guy cheated and tried to hide it from his wife and, incidentally, America. That isn’t something for which you give someone a medal, but most of Clinton’s party stood with him in maintaining that you don’t overturn an election over it either.
Clinton’s approval rating actually went up after his impeachment trial. It reached a high of 73% and was still a robust 66% when he left office. Trump’s ratings, while far lower, have barely budged at all during his entire first term thus far, including the run-up to last week’s impeachment vote. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week ahead of the House vote found that Americans were split, 48% to 48%, on whether the president deserves to be removed from office. His supporters are unmoved. His detractors, from all appearances, are fully prepared to vote for any current or future Democratic opponent next year. I suspect many would vote for Leon Trotsky or Bugs Bunny before they would vote for Trump.
Nixon was correct that his near-impeachment, and his resignation to avoid it, would lower the threshold for impeachments to follow. But on further reflection, he was likely wrong about it being “destabilizing.”
For that, as for so many other things, we can thank the framers of our Constitution. Although they permitted the removal of a president for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” they did not specify what those might be, beyond bribery and treason. Thus, they left an inherently political process to the politicians who sit in Congress. Those politicians are accountable to their voters. Every representative who does not retire will face those voters next year. One-third of the Senate will likewise face voters in 2020; the others will get their turn in due course.
I liked it better when we kept the impeachment lever behind glass, to be broken only in case of emergency. But our country is strong enough to handle a few false alarms. Whether this impeachment is warranted or worthless, and whether this president has his White House time curtailed or serves a full term (or two), we will be fine in the end.