When I speak to an audience of older readers, I like to ask how many remember what they were doing the day President Richard Nixon was impeached.
It’s a trick question, of course.
Nixon was never impeached, much less convicted by the U.S. Senate — although many who were around to witness the implosion of his presidency remember differently.
A congressional committee did report three articles of impeachment — the equivalent of counts in a criminal indictment — to the U.S.House of Representatives late in July 1974.
But before the full House could act, a delegation of Republican lawmakers visited the White House to warn Nixon that both his impeachment by the House and his conviction by the Senate were foregone conclusions.
In an Oval Office meeting late in the afternoon of Aug. 7, 1974, Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott told Nixon his only recourse was to resign. In a televised address the following evening, Nixon took their advice.
Bill Clinton, who moved into the Oval Office 18 years after Nixon’s ignominious departure, actually was impeached. But few Americans remember the details of that historic event, either, because nearly everyone paying attention anticipated, correctly, that Clinton would be acquitted by the Senate and go on to finish his second term.
I mention all this only to remind those hoping to see a certain incumbent president hauled before the Senate to answer articles of impeachment that they are bound to be disappointed.
My purpose here is not to argue that Donald Trump has or has not committed impeachable offenses. Special counsel Robert Mueller will deliver his own, better-informed judgment about that soon enough.
But whatever Mueller concludes, we can be reasonably confident that no initiative to impeach Trump will get very far — not even as far, perhaps, as the abortive prosecution of Richard Nixon.
To understand why, we need to revisit the disparate experiences of Nixon, whose presidency ended before he could be impeached, and Bill Clinton, who retained power despite his impeachment by a hostile House of Representatives.
NIXON’S ROAD TO EXILE
When he became the first president to resign from office on August 9, 1974 (after announcing his decision the evening before), Nixon had spent more than two years battling allegations arising from a botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices in Washington’s Watergate complex.
The three articles of impeachment the House Judiciary Committee adopted in late July recommended that Nixon be tried in the Senate for three offenses: obstructing the investigation of the Watergate burglary; abusing his executive powers to order IRS harassment and illegal surveillance of his political enemies; and refusing to turn over evidence the Judiciary Committee had subpoenaed.
Significantly, 7 of the 17 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee backed at least one of the impeachment counts. The Democratic majority in the House was expected to embrace all three.
Even so, Nixon vowed to defend his presidency in the Senate, where the Democrats’ 57-43 advantage fell 10 seats short of the two-thirds vote needed to expel Nixon from office.
In fact, Nixon’s hopes of staving off expulsion had effectively vanished a week before the Judiciary Committee vote when the Supreme Court, whose members included four justices appointed by Nixon, unanimously ordered him to turn over tape recordings made in the Oval Office.
One of those recordings, which became public six days after the Judiciary Committee adopted the third and final article of impeachment, revealed Nixon’s direct role in obstructing the FBI’s Watergate investigation. Within hours, the 10 Republican Judiciary Committee members who had opposed all three counts announced that they would support at least the first when it came before the full House.
The collapse of Republican support in the Senate was equally dramatic. When they visited the White House on Aug. 7, Goldwater and his colleagues told Nixon he could expect no more than 18 of the 43 GOP senators to vote for his acquittal.
Less than 48 hours later, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as Nixon’s successor.
SURVIVING THE BLUE DRESS
Nixon’s final days demonstrate how quickly a combative, self-delusional politician’s resolve to tough it out can evaporate when members of his own political party desert him.
Bill Clinton’s impeachment ordeal teaches a different lesson.
Kenneth Starr, a Republican who had served as the federal government’s top lawyer in the Supreme Court under President George H.W. Bush, was appointed to investigate Clinton’s real estate dealings two years after Clinton assumed the presidency in 1992. But it was after Clinton’s re-election to a second term that Starr began focusing on Clinton’s sexual relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
The relationship’s public disclosure in early 1998 would have been scandalous under any circumstances; when Starr provided evidence that Clinton had lied about the relationship under oath while testifying in a sexual harassment case brought by a second woman, House Republicans charged that Clinton’s conduct had been felonious as well as immoral.
The public was skeptical of that argument from the beginning. In midterm elections that November, Clinton’s party actually gained seats in the House, although Republicans retained a slight majority. Even South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, then a congressman on the House Judiciary Committee, conceded he wasn’t sure whether the case against Clinton — including a blue dress stained with semen matching the president’s DNA — had more to do with “Watergate or Peyton Place.”
Undeterred by their midterm losses, the House voted to impeach Clinton the following month, adopting two articles of impeachment on mostly party-line votes. The first article, alleging perjury, passed 228-206; the second, which accused Clinton of obstructing Starr’s inquiry, squeaked through by just 9 votes.
By the time Clinton’s impeachment trial began in the Senate, where Republicans held a 55-45 majority, public sentiment had shifted decisively against the incumbent’s expulsion. In the end, not even a simple majority of 51 senators (much less the 67 needed to convict) could be mustered to support either article of impeachment.
Two years later, when the Supreme Court eventually declared George Bush the winner of the presidential election, Republicans lost seats in both houses.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
If Nixon’s resignation demonstrated the power of a bipartisan legislative consensus, Clinton’s survival showed how an impeachment campaign can blow up in the face of the congressional majority that prosecutes it, even when the public agrees that the president has acted abominably.
It also explains why Democrats poised to seize control of the House next month will be hesitant to impeach Trump, even for conduct they believe illegal, without assurance that at least 67 senators will vote to convict him.
In Michigan and other states where congressional seats flipped from red to blue, candidates who campaigned on a promise to make Trump’s impeachment a priority lost Democratic primary contests to opponents who adopted a more cautious, wait-and-see posture. The last thing first-term lawmakers like Michigan Democrats Haley Stevens and Elyssa Slotkin want to do now is repeat the mistake congressional Republicans who impeached Clinton made.
The tide could turn quickly if Mueller provides unambiguous evidence that Trump committed impeachable crimes — a “smoking gun” analogous to the incriminating recording that prompted Republican lawmakers to abandon Nixon in 1974.
But if Trump’s support in the Senate erodes as precipitously as Nixon’s did, the president will know before incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer do.
Another delegation of Republican senators will be dispatched to the White House, and Trump will understand, as Nixon did, the limited options facing a President who has run out of friends in his own party.
Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor of the Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org