Donald Trump will be the fourth president to face a formal impeachment inquiry

Impeachment:  the nuclear option in American politics. This is a step not taken lightly. Rarely do we see impeachment hearings in US history.  For only the fourth time, an American president faces an impeachment inquiry. As the attempt to impeach Donald Trump begins, it is illustrative to examine the two most recent attempts to remove a president from office:  Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

Aghast at what they perceive to be Trump’s brazen disregard for the norms of the office he holds, many Democrats are incredulous that it took this long to begin formal impeachment proceedings against Trump.  They wonder what held House Speaker Nancy Pelosi back and feel giddy about the prospects of removing President Trump from office.  On the other side of the aisle, Republicans chortle over the prospect of seeing a reprise of 1998, in which Bill Clinton emerged relatively unscathed and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich found himself facing a considerable political backlash over his failed attempt to unseat President Clinton.

It was that very scenario that probably hindered Pelosi’s interest in pursuing impeachment.  While underwater in overall approval ratings (53 percent disapprove of Trump in NBC’s most recent poll), there is very little public support for impeachment (Politico’s most recent poll on the subject pegged support at 37 percent).  Given the Republican majority in the Senate (53-47 by caucus), it would seem highly unlikely that even if impeached, Trump would be convicted.  When the same situation occurred in 1998, Clinton stayed in office, the House GOP suffered in the next election, and Newt Gingrich saw his star fall.

There is certainly a good deal of risk in pursuing impeachment at present, as the 1998 example demonstrates.  However, it is wise to remember 1974’s parameters as well.  Nixon certainly enjoyed high popularity when the Watergate scandal broke.  When the burglars were arrested in June 1972 in their attempt to tap the telephones at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex, the news was startling but hardly seismic in its immediate political repercussions.  Nixon went on to win a rather comfortable victory in November, carrying every state but Massachusetts.  Even George McGovern’s home state of South Dakota voted for Nixon.  The Republican claims of a “silent majority” certainly seem to have been borne out by the results of the election.  Yet almost two years later, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace, facing almost certain impeachment and conviction.  What was different between 1974 and 1998?

The difference lies largely in how the public perceived the two incidents.  In 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached over lying about marital infidelity while under oath.  The incident, while certainly fitting the Constitutional requirement of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” was not one that most Americans felt rose to the level of removal.  While they might not have liked or supported Clinton, they accepted what he had done as understandable and even excusable.  This was his personal life being brought into the public eye as grounds for removal.  Clinton had faced the voters twice.  His sexual fidelity was not a secret; indeed, it had been the subject of extensive news reports and formed the basis of a civil lawsuit that eventually prompted the perjury.  The voters had responded to this two times, both times giving Clinton a pass.

You can see the same dynamic with Donald Trump.  His infidelities were also widely known – and mattered little to voters overall. Despite the infamous Access Hollywood tape, despite the Stormy Daniels revelations, little of Trump’s support eroded. But the Ukrainian situation is fundamentally different.

As in 1974, this is an incident where the very nature of America’s political process is in question. What ultimately did Nixon in was not the break-in but rather the cover-up.  To date, little direct evidence has emerged that Nixon was involved in the plan to tap the DNC phones.  He was, however, deeply involved in the subsequent cover-up.  And it was the very public demonstration of that involvement, through the House hearings and the Oval Office tapes that shifted public opinion.  The American public accepts that politicians lie – it’s a staple of political humor, as much a cliché as kissing babies.  What they have little tolerance for is the idea that the political process can be violated.  Any political scientist will tell you that governments and their authority rest upon legitimacy in the eyes of the governed.  Weaken that sense of legitimacy and the government is in trouble.  That was the issue in 1974.  It was not the issue in 1998.

This does not mean that President Trump is fated to be removed from office.  The Democrats in the House must demonstrate publicly that Trump was actively engaged in extorting a victim of Russian aggression for dirt on a political rival as the price of military aid already approved by Congress.  If they succeed, the Senate, much as in 1974, will probably fall into line.  If not, Trump, like Clinton, will escape. Ultimately, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one.  The stakes here are high for both sides.  If the Democrats can make their case, Trump will be removed from office.  If they can’t the GOP will gain new life and strength. The 2020 election is being played out in the six House committees investigating the President.


Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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