Last week’s release of a redacted version of the Mueller Report, about alleged contacts between the Trump presidential campaign of 2016 and Russian agents, has led to a variety of reactions among congressional leaders in Washington. Several Democratic presidential candidates, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have called for the initiation of impeachment proceedings.
But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, has hesitated to support such proceedings, fearing a political backlash among Donald J. Trump supporters and independent voters. President Trump meanwhile has repeatedly claimed on his Twitter account that the Mueller Report indicated no criminal activity on his part and has labeled the whole investigation as a witch hunt.
No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2019
So, will President Trump become the third president in United States history to be impeached? A comparison of the political context, the allegations, and the impeachment processes with the two most recent U.S. presidents to undergo such criminal proceedings may shed light on what is likely to happen in Washington over the next two years.
In the United States, the impeachment process begins with a majority vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to have a trial held in the U.S. Senate. The Senate then holds a trial for an impeached president and requires two-thirds approval to convict and remove the president from office.
While two presidents have been impeached in American history, none have ever been removed from office, and a third president resigned just before being impeached. According to the U.S. Constitution, impeachment can occur for treason, bribery, or “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a term that can mean whatever Congress wants it to mean.
Nixon and Watergate Scandal
In 1972, five burglars working for President Richard Nixon‘s Republican re-election campaign committee broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate building complex in Washington DC. The burglars were apparently trying to place electronic listening devices (bugs) at the headquarters.
President Nixon dismissed the burglars and their operation as a foolish low-level effort by campaign volunteers with which he was not involved – most Americans believed him, and he won re-election in a landslide later that year.
But in 1973, one burglar began to reveal that the operation was not just low-level foolishness, leading to a number of investigations and discoveries that the Nixon administration had not only been burglarizing the offices of political opponents, but had set up a “Dirty Tricks” operation to sabotage the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates, had an Enemies List of political opponents targeted for tax investigations, and had received large secret illegal campaign donations to fund all the other illegal or unethical activities.
President Nixon repeatedly claimed to be unaware of his campaign’s 1972 activities, but the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, started impeachment proceedings, and the House Judiciary Committee recommended Nixon’s impeachment on three counts: Abuse of Power (such as the Enemies List), Contempt of Congress (not turning over requested files to Congress), and Obstruction of Justice (interference with investigations).
Almost all Democrats on the committee voted to impeach on all counts. A majority of Republicans voted no, but several joined Democrats to vote to impeach.
Before the full House voted to impeach, a tape recording from the Oval Office released under court order revealed that President Nixon had directed the CIA to tell the FBI not to investigate the Watergate burglary. This was considered a “smoking gun,” directly connecting Nixon to committing the crime of obstruction of justice.
At that point, Senate Republicans warned the president that they would join the majority Senate Democrats to vote to remove him from office, and Nixon resigned to avoid the inevitable.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 resulted from a very different set of circumstances, but took place in a similar political context to that of Nixon, and involved some similar alleged crimes.
Clinton had been sued by an Arkansas state government employee for sexual harassment for allegedly propositioning that employee while he was governor of Arkansas. During a pre-trial deposition for that lawsuit, Clinton was asked under oath if he had been having sexual relations with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky to prove a pattern of sexual behavior with younger employees. Clinton lied and said no, committing the crime of perjury.
Lewinsky also lied under oath during the deposition and was then continuously under legal threat by prosecutors who had been investigating Clinton about old real estate deals. Lewinsky finally relented and admitted she had had sexual relations with Clinton and at home in her closet was a stained blue dress that would prove to be the “smoking gun” of the Clinton scandal.
At an August 1998 grand jury hearing to investigate the January deposition, Clinton lied again under oath. Four months later, the majority Republican House of Representatives, joined by five Democrats, voted to impeach Clinton on two counts: Perjury before the grand jury, and Obstruction of Justice for asking Lewinsky and others to lie.
After a trial in the Republican majority Senate in early 1999, Senators did not reach the two-thirds vote needed to remove Clinton from office, with all Democrats voting no on both counts, but the highest vote to remove, 50-50, came on the obstruction of justice count, the same crime which forced President Nixon to resign.
The Mueller Report conclusions and the allegations against President Trump contain several similarities to the allegations and discoveries of the Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky scandals, but the political context differs in several ways.
While the Mueller Report found insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone for illegal collusion with Russian agents during the 2016 presidential election campaign, it is clear that such collusion and cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian agents did occur, even if not illegal in nature. The most famous example was the Trump Tower meeting attended by Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, and Russian agents who claimed they would be discussing negative information about Hillary Clinton.
More serious may be the Report’s discussion of President Trump’s numerous attempts, sometimes made in public, to shut down the investigation and fire the investigators, in addition to his frequent public lies about the investigation, all of which could be interpreted by the House of Representatives as obstruction of justice, the same crime that drove Nixon from office and came closest to removing Clinton from office.
There are a number of other similarities between the Trump scandals and Watergate scandal: the appointment of an independent special counsel to investigate, public anger directed at the special counsel by the president, presidential insiders going public (as with former Trump attorney Michael Cohen) with allegations of criminal or unethical activities, sabotage of Democratic presidential candidate campaigns (the Wikileaks release of stolen emails), harassment of political “enemies” (often done on Twitter by President Trump), and secret donations (as with the money used to pay off women alleging affairs with Trump).
President Trump has so far not testified to anything under oath, likely saving him from the perjury charges that led to Clinton’s impeachment. But some allegations against Trump have involved sexual harassment or the cover-up of extramarital affairs.
Trump and Impeachment
Several factors, however, may save Trump from the fates of President Nixon and Clinton, who were impeached or resigned to avoid impeachment. First, while there is strong evidence of obstruction of justice on his part, there is not yet any “smoking gun” to connect him to any illegal act during the 2016 campaign.
Second, unlike Presidents Nixon and Clinton who faced opposition parties in control of both chambers of Congress, President Trump has a Republican majority Senate that everyone knows will not convict and remove him with current evidence.
Third, while several Republicans joined Democrats to support the impeachment of Nixon in 1974, and a small number of House Democrats joined Republicans to vote to impeach Clinton in 1998, there seem to be few if any current Republicans in Congress willing to support an impeachment effort against President Trump. Moderates from both parties have disappeared from Congress in recent decades.
Finally, while Presidents Nixon and Clinton had vice presidents that many considered or might have considered an improvement for the office of president, Trump has Mike Pence, who most Democrats dread as president as much as they dislike President Trump.
Many or most Democrats in Washington might find an impeachment process a pointless exercise when an election might also remove both the current president and vice president from office in less than two yearsDisclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.