Impeaching a President: Fact, fiction and lessons from history

Donald Trump, Democrats, Republicans, US
The impeachment process of US presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, despite their differences had one common thread - politics and the viciousness of it.

Always give your best. Never get discouraged; never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself.

— Richard Nixon’s last address to staffers at the East Room of White House.

Lawmakers, especially those involved in the impeachment of United States President Donald Trump, are heading home for Thanksgiving but not before getting over nine days of dramatic moments at Capitol Hill involving 11 witnesses, all of them having a story to tell, with some being more compelling than others.

The bottom line to the Democrats is that the common denominator to all those who appeared before the impeachment committee was the same: there is evidence of major crime involving the president when it came to Ukraine. This is an example of a “quid quo pro” move, where military assistance is released for digging up dirt on a political opponent to get domestic political gain.

Impeachment then and now

In the words of Representative Adam Schiff, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who is the Democratic pointsman in the impeachment proceedings, what President Trump did was far worse than what President Richard Nixon did. He was involved in a third-rate burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex.

Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of America has been till date the only president to have resigned in disgrace in the face of conviction in the Senate in 1974. However, what is transpiring in Washington DC today is the fourth impeachment process. The first one was President Bill Clinton’s in 1998 and Trump has shared the “honours” for the 20th and 21st centuries.

When Congressman Schiff invoked Nixon’s name in an impassioned closing statement, he was taking aim at the Republicans in the House and the Senate — who are solidly behind the sitting President — as opposed to members of the Grand Old Party who broke ranks with their leader in their last fateful days leading to August 9, 1974.

Only two days earlier, it was none other than Republican Senator Barry Goldwater who bluntly told Nixon that he did not have the numbers — either get impeached or resign was the blunt and yet subtle message that was conveyed.

By invoking the Nixon era days, Congressman Schiff was also imploring his colleagues to remember the last days of the Nixon Presidency when the world’s most powerful leader was found on many occasions drunk, on tranquilizers and disoriented to the point that the Defence Secretary, James Schlesinger had told the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff not to take any military orders from Nixon.

Antony Bergen so vividly captures the final setting of the Nixon era in his article, What have I done?: The Final Hours of Richard Nixon’s Presidency and points out the anguish felt by the close aides of the President regarding whether Nixon would resort to any additional constitutional grab of power.

Apparently, the Defence Secretary was so concerned that a tentative plan was put in place to bring in the elite 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina in case troops had to be used to remove the President from the Oval Office and the White House. In ways more than one, Congressman Schiff has given his colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, many things to ponder.

Vicious politics – the common thread

There is a temptation to somehow compare the impeachment processes of Nixon, Clinton and Trump, even though the environment and substance of the impeachment process could not be more different. In the case of Nixon, it went beyond a “third rate burglary” of DNC headquarters — it was of a cover-up involving the President himself in a 1972 taped conversation with his aide HR Haldeman, which subsequently came to be known as the “Smoking Gun”.

In the case of Bill Clinton, it was over an affair with a young White House intern. Even if the affair had been consensual, that was seen by many as abuse of Presidential power; and Clinton was convicted in the House for perjury—lying under oath that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Till date Clinton insists that he did not lie under oath—he did not have sexual intercourse in the correct sense of the word.

President Trump faces the charge of abuse of power and ‘bribery’ by telling the President of Ukraine in a telephone conversation on July 25, 2019 that he better dig up dirt on Senator Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden so as to get some winning points over a Presidential contender in 2020 election.

The content and tenor of the Trump-Zelensky call were so disturbing that it prompted an intelligence official to alert his superiors—what followed the whistleblower’s revelation set the House Democrats in motion.

The three impeachment processes are different, to say the least. There is only one common thread running between the three—politics and the viciousness of it, especially of 1998 and 2019. But there is yet another major difference between the 1970s and 2019 or for that matter even 1998.

During the Nixon era, he and his staffers had to keep track of only a handful of television media outlets besides the print scribes. The coming of the internet in the 1990s made it slightly different for Clinton and the Democrats; but today with the onset of the powerful social media, it is a totally different ballgame altogether.

The Democrats are now having to deal with not only with rapid-fire from their opposition colleagues in the House chamber but also the conservative mean machine from the galleries and hallways firing back insistently on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Not to forget President Trump himself tearing into witnesses on Twitter even as they were making their opening statements or answering questions from lawyers and members of the Congress. Marie Yovanovitch, former American Ambassador to the Ukraine will tell you how she felt with the President ripping into her testimony.

If Congressman Schiff is looking for bi-partisanship that prevailed in 1973/1974, that is not going to be coming anytime soon now. Democrats are literally looking to hammer away at Trump just in the same way Republicans in the House of Representatives went after Clinton. At that time during the Lewinsky investigations involving the Special Counsel Kenneth Starr, many Democrats saw in all that a “vast right-wing conspiracy”; just as how the extreme right-wing conservatives see now a “left” or a “commie” conspiracy in going after Trump.

Also read | US braces for a crisis as Trump faces impeachment pressure

Varying stories of impeachment

For some conservatives to swear by Trump’s innocence or his genuine interest in tackling international corruption is as silly as those liberals among the Democrats arguing that they did not know of Clinton’s weaknesses or what went on in Arkansas involving women while he was Governor. And in the midst of all the goings-on, Americans elected Clinton to a second term in 1996! So much for innocence and pretense of Republicans and Democrats.

So, what has happened after nine days and a dozen witnesses? Practically it is the same story when it all started. Nearly everyone called by the impeachment team either expressed dismay and concern of the directions of the President and his foreign policy; all of them with the view that President Trump and his close-knit circle knew what was being asked of Kiev and its leader Volodymer Zelensky. And this included Lt. Colonel Vindman of the NSA; Ambassador William Taylor, a senior US diplomat in the Ukraine; Ambassador Yovanovitch. And then the bombshell from Gordon Sondland, a political appointee as Ambassador to the European Union who stressed that there was indeed a clear quid pro quo—Zelensky to announce an investigation of corruption and in return there will be a meeting with President Trump at the White House and the freeing up of US $391 millions in blocked security assistance.

In fact, Sondland went to the extent of making the point that all that the Ukrainian leader had to do was just “announce” investigation, he did not even have to follow through. Sondland maintained that he only “followed President’s orders” and that “everyone was in the loop”. That was enough for Democrats to say there was a quid pro quo and hence the high crime of bribery.

But that is the Democrats’ impeachment story. The Republicans have their own version of the impeachment and basically goes something like this: most or all the witnesses called are of a dubious nature and character and Lt. Col. Vindman may even have a “dual loyalty” by virtue of the fact that he is of Ukranian descent; many of the witnesses have a hyphenated nationality—Ukranian American; British American or other American and hence could not be considered as “American”; and Ambassador Sondland had himself testified that he had no direct order but only presumed what President Trump wanted and hence that “Two-plus-Two equals Four” would fall flat on its face. But the most preposterous assertion was that all attention on Ukraine by Democrats had to do with Trump wanting to investigate the role of Kiev in the meddling of the 2016 American Presidential elections just when everyone was convinced that Russia had meddled in the last elections and was planning to repeat it again this time around.

In fact, on the last day of testimony, American intelligence officials have told lawmakers that the bizarre Ukrainian spin on 2016 meddling is something that Moscow’s agents have been so determined to plant for quite some time.

Trump refuses to crumble under pressure

There is a method to the impeachment madness that is currently prevailing in Washington DC, both to the Democrats and the Republicans. In spite of the obvious, the Democrats are somehow confident that somewhere and sometime down the line support for the President would crumble in the face of evidence.

Opinion polls show a comfortable majority saying that they did not approve of Trump’s Ukraine policy; at the same time polls also show that this was not a reason for throwing the President out. Democrats are now hoping—against hopes?—that there will be a shift in public opinion that will, in turn, impact Republican lawmakers, especially in the Senate.

Also read | In Halloween vote, US House formalises Trump’s impeachment process

This goes back to Congressman Schiff’s lament: “The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump, it’s the difference between that Congress and this one. And so we are asking, where are the people who are willing to go beyond their party to look to their duty?” Members of the Grand Old Party are unwilling to shift loyalties not out of any great love for their President but in a fear of reprisals in an election year.

“I want a trial”, Trump said at a Fox News Interview making the point that there are several forces that are arraigned against him—“the Democrats, their machine, the media machine, the fake, corrupt media.”

Right through the two week Impeachment drama on Capitol Hill, Trump has hardly given any indication of backing down; in fact he has gone on the offensive and revving up gears to a high pitch making it very clear to his supporters and his publicity machine that he is prepared for the long haul and in the process forcing his party people in the Senate to draw up a strategy when the process reaches their chamber for the prosecution phase. And if the Democrats are looking for an early closure that is certainly not going to be coming, even by a long shot. The only drama that has not yet taken place is the White House, the administration and the media making a desperate attempt to name the whistleblower which is perhaps one of the few decent things that has happened thus far.

Trump and his team’s aggressive posturing takes two forms: first the verbal attacks against Democrats and everybody who is against the President. And this the form of not only discrediting the credentials of persons and testimonies but also putting out patently dubious and false statements hoping that repeating those consistently and over a period of time would make them truthful. The White House has successfully prevented at least three top officials from appearing before the impeachment panel—the acting White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and the former National Security Advisor, John Bolton.

The Democrats would love to have Bolton testify but the former NSA official has declined to say that he would only if a Court forced him to.

At the time of the Thanksgiving recess, the impeachment panel has not scheduled any other witnesses and the impression is that the process will move to the full House of Representatives along with the formal articles of impeachment which will have to be voted upon. As many as 233 out of 235 Democrats in the Chamber have indicated that they stand with the party on impeaching the President. If numbers are anything to go by the impeachment of Trump in the House is a certainty after which the Senate takes on the prosecutorial role. Here the attention is not just on the numbers but in the kind of playbook that the White House and Republicans have in mind: most likely a long drawn out affair that will involve examining the role of the then-Vice President Joe Biden of the Obama administration in Ukraine. Trump may even insist that he be examined for all the political gain to be made on the theatrics front.

Most importantly is that hardline GOP members will want to drag on the process in the Senate to handicap six Democratic Senators – and candidate Joe Biden– from any effective campaigning for the Presidential party ticket in Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary scheduled in the first two weeks of February 2020. As it is none of them are prominently ahead in National and Iowa/New Hampshire polls. Hurting them by denying exposure in Iowa and New Hampshire may only help the incumbent, the Trump campaign will surmise.

All said and done, Americans and the world at large are in for a long haul with many sure to wonder if those who started the process have learned anything at all from the past.

(The author is a former senior journalist in Washington DC covering North America and the United Nations)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)