Jurisprudence

The Nixon Impeachment—a Blueprint for Today

Photo illustration of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump
President Richard Nixon and President Donald Trump
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by AFP FILES/AFP/Getty Images and Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Too many Americans oppose impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, focusing on the failed impeachment against President Bill Clinton without fully considering the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. As a result, they claim impeachment is too divisive, that there are not sufficient votes in the Senate to convict, or that it would be bad for the Democrats in the next election.

But the impeachment process against Nixon worked—the only one involving an American president that ever did. The House Judiciary Committee’s vote for three Articles of Impeachment led within weeks to Nixon’s resignation. The committee’s evidence was solid and convincing, the proceedings fair and serious, and the vote bipartisan. (More than one-third of Republicans on the committee voted for impeachment—even before the “smoking gun” White House tape was released showing that Nixon personally orchestrated the cover-up.)

Americans supported the committee’s determination. Rather than dividing the country, the impeachment process brought it together—most Americans agreed that more important than any president or party were the rule of law and the Constitution. Nixon was permanently disgraced—and the committee’s work has never seriously been challenged.

Improbably, impeachment proved to be a political bonanza for the Democrats, resulting in massive victories in the 1974 congressional elections. Democrats had acted responsibly, while Republicans were seen as tied to a lawless president. (It was the Republicans’ fierce partisanship that turned the country against them in the Clinton impeachment.)

When the Judiciary Committee began working on the Nixon impeachment, no vote count was taken on the Democratic side. We didn’t know what the vote total would be on the committee, much less in the House or the Senate. And such a count would have been meaningless, anyway. Most of us knew nothing about the constitutional grounds for impeachment or what the full case against Nixon would look like. But the American people were demanding that the president be held accountable. (This did not happen in the Clinton impeachment, which was triggered by a recommendation from a special prosecutor.) Since many of us believed that Nixon posed a grave danger to our democracy, our only option was to go forward in a fair and responsible manner: gather the facts, study the Constitution, and determine whether the facts met the constitutional standard. Good government turned out to be good politics.

The impeachment proceedings against Clinton were an abuse of power by Congress. Clinton’s behavior with respect to Monica Lewinsky was reprehensible, but he did not use the powers of the presidency to commit the misdeeds of which he was accused, and his actions did not threaten our democracy—which is what most Americans thought. Compare that to Watergate, where Nixon used his presidential powers to cover up the Watergate break-in by dangling pardons and paying hush money to keep the burglars from cooperating with prosecutors, ordering the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation, firing the special Watergate prosecutor to stop him from obtaining incriminating evidence, and interfering with witnesses before Congress, among other things. Nixon was also charged with other egregious abuses of power, including illegal wiretapping, creating a White House unit that broke into a psychiatrist’s office to get information to smear Daniel Ellsberg, and ordering IRS audits of an enemies’ list of people who opposed his Vietnam policies. Nixon’s refusal to provide the committee with White House tapes and other subpoenaed material—thereby obstructing the committee’s impeachment inquiry–formed the third article of impeachment.

Donald Trump’s misdeeds, at least as spelled out in the Mueller report, appear to replicate some of Nixon’s worst acts. For example, Trump and his attorneys apparently dangled pardons before several witnesses to keep them from cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. One witness stated that Trump called the director of national intelligence asking for his help in shutting down the Russia investigation. And Trump fired the FBI director and tried to remove Mueller to impede that investigation, too. It all began with Russia’s breaking into the Democratic National Committee electronically and using the information to help Trump in the presidential election (with outreach to the Trump campaign)—paralleling the burglary of the DNC headquarters by Nixon campaign operatives in connection with the 1972 presidential campaign.

Covering up election tampering is bad enough, but it’s much worse when the tampering involves connivance with a foreign power—even though the degree of that connivance has been obscured by the Trump cover-up itself. Ironically, long after the Nixon presidency ended, we learned that Nixon had conspired with a foreign power, in this case South Vietnam, to scuttle Vietnam peace talks in order to help his election prospects. Had we known this at the time, Nixon’s treason-like conduct would have figured prominently in the articles of impeachment.

Democrats need to think seriously about following the blueprint set out in the Nixon impeachment. Public education about the facts of Watergate was central to the impeachment—and that took place through a specially created Senate committee which held public hearings that were viewed by millions. Key players testified. The committee was small (seven members) and counsel conducted much of the questioning. By way of contrast, most of the players in the Trump matters have been shielded from public view by the Republicans who controlled Congress for two years.

The House must develop a way of presenting a clear narrative of Trump’s misconduct, primarily by having critical witnesses testify in public. The House also needs to figure out how to allow for a coherent, simple method of questioning those witnesses—something that cannot be done easily with committees of more than 30 members.

If impeachment proceedings commence, they need to be conducted fairly, and in a bipartisan manner to the fullest extent possible. During the Nixon impeachment, the Democratic majority picked a Republican as the Committee’s chief counsel, and the Republicans picked a Republican as their counsel. Our inquiry was guided by two Republicans, another fact helping to demonstrate that the process was fair. The Judiciary Committee chair understood that a partisan process would not be accepted by the American people.

What is at stake is protecting our democracy, which is why it is so important to look carefully at the Nixon impeachment process.

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