Trump and Nixon: Three key differences between 2019 and 1974

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly press briefing on October 8, 2019. She accused the White House of an “unlawful attempt to hide the facts” after it ruled out cooperating with an impeachment probe of President Donald Trump. Andrew Caballero/AFP

Did the impeachment of Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States, start on September 24, 2019, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally announced an impeachment investigation? Or did it start on November 15, 2017, when six Democrats in the House of Representatives sent Impeachment Articles to the House Judiciary Committee?

The answer is both and neither. In 2017, the Republicans were in full control of Congress, making the chances slim of the House of Representatives approving one or more of the Articles of Impeachment for trial in the Senate – the subject was on the table, but little more. In 2018 the Democrats took control of the House in the midterm elections, greatly improving the odds of an impeachment articles passing the House, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Trump will be subjected to more than a cursory vote of approval in the Republican controlled Senate. Removed from office is a long way off..

There are three key differences between the current impeachment proceeding and the one of 1973-74 that ended in the resignation of Richard Nixon, the only time impeachment proceedings have resulted in a President leaving office. Each of these differences greatly complicates the removal of Donald Trump:

  • The current proceedings originated in the House of Representatives and will finish in the Senate. The process against Nixon started in the Senate, where Democrats had a majority in 1973. The bill creating the Senate Watergate Committee passed on February, 5, 1973, sponsored by Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina. Important Republicans sat on the committee, and while Ervin was the undisputed star of those hearings, Republican Howard Baker made his reputation too with the notable and often repeated question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

  • Today’s Senate is not just controlled by the Republican Party, it is dominated by Trump loyalists. By law, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cannot simply ignore acts of impeachment. However, “How long you are on it is a whole different matter,” he said. McConnell’s stonewalling Democratic party initiatives, such as ignoring President Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, shows his willingness to use the Republican majority in the most aggressive way possible.

  • The Nixon hearings were televised by all three commercial networks at once, and then in cooperative relays. Public television played the entire hearings through the night, and National Public Radio provided gavel-to-gavel coverage across the country. That sober, continuous and thorough coverage will not be repeated this time around, making gathering cross-party public support that much harder.

Risks for the House

The best indication of how the impeachment proceedings will end is where it started. Like the present one, the 1998 case against Bill Clinton started in the House of Representatives, pushed by a Republican majority. Speaker Newt Gingrich had calculated with the help of polls that the proceedings would allow the Republican Party to pick up as many as 30 Congressional seats. Instead, in the November 1998 election the Democrats picked up 5 seats and Gingrich resigned.

The subsequent trial in the Senate, where Republicans had a 55 to 45 majority – not anywhere near the two-thirds needed for removing a president from office – was quick and a forgone conclusion. With just the 45 Democrats, Clinton would have been acquitted. But Republican senators supported him on each charge as well, breaking party ranks. Impeachment proceedings starting in the House without consideration for the endgame in the Senate had ended in embarrassment for the party that brought the charges.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, had been resisting this fate. She was finally moved to action by a double revelation.

First, Trump had used American military aid to Ukraine as leverage for pushing Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business activities in his country of Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. Is this treason? Certainly it is an abuse of power intended to keep perpetrator Trump in office. That is exactly the kind of “high crime” for which impeachment was incorporated into the Constitution (Article II, section 4. Trump’s incriminating conversation with the Ukrainian leader had been monitored by many, including a National Security Agency staffer who had been sufficiently distressed by what he or she heard to report the matter to the appropriate superior.

Second, by law, such a “whistle-blower” report must be passed to Congress. However, the White House not only prevented that reporting, but it also hid the recording of the conversation. In other words, Trump has been involved in a cover-up, and one that involves flagrant contempt of Congress and the law. Nancy Pelosi had no choice but to launch impeachment proceedings.

On September 24, 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) declined to answer questions on the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump, but did indicate he was not told by the Trump administration why financial aid was withheld from Ukraine. Win McNamee/AFP

From 2017 to 2019: no decisive difference

However, has anything really changed since the first articles of impeachment were sent to the House Judiciary Committee in 2017? They included obstruction of justice for firing James Comey, the FBI chief who was investigating Russian meddling with the 2016 election. Trump connections to this meddling looked like treason then, an impeachable offense specifically mentioned in the United States Constitution (Article II, section 4). Next came accusations of accepting domestic and foreign emoluments beyond his designated salary as president, also forbidden by the Constitution (Article II, section 1, clause 7; Article I, section 9, clause 8). Again and again during his presidency, Trump has promoted his hotels and golf courses to foreign dignitaries, something easy to prove and even admitted by him.

While Pelosi’s hand was forced, she is cautious: she has the 2020 election to think of, after all. What she announced was an impeachment investigation, not an impeachment. With luck, she thinks, the investigation will be the equivalent of the Senate Watergate Committee of 1973, and include Republican representatives. She will also hope for a Republican defector, like the White House counsel of the Nixon Administration, John Dean, who recieved a reduced sentence by pleading guilty to one charge and in exchange delivered damaging evidence about the Watergate cover-up – a “cancer on the presidency,” as he memorably stated. Pelosi might come upon the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield, who revealed the existence of the White House tapes.

In the Senate, however, Pelosi has little to say and no one to say it too. Republican Senators in the Watergate years were a different breed: Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee, participated in the Watergate hearings and presented himself as nonpartisan. The Republican Senate Minority Leader was Hugh Scott, who voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He had supported Julian Bond, a black political leader, when the Georgia State Legislature would not let him take his seat in 1966.

2020: Long odds for a trial

Do such Republicans still exist? The Republican Whip at the time was Robert Griffin of Michigan, who in 1974 wrote to Nixon and demanded the release of the White House tapes. A former Nixon supporter, he threatened impeachment and a trial in the Senate. After the White House delivered the “smoking gun” tape, it was Senate minority leader Hugh Scott, with Barry Goldwater, who took the news to Nixon that he had lost all but 15 Republican votes in the Senate – all but assuring conviction and removal from office. Until similar slipping away from Republican regimentation becomes visible today, there is no chance of a convincing trial in the Senate.

This erosion of support may have started on October 6, when President Trump gave the “green light” to President Erdogan of Turkey for Turkish forces to invade Kurdish-held territory in Syria. Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham both expressing dismay, and Graham’s language was harsh, speaking of “Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump administration.” Senator McConnell said that the president should “exercise American leadership” rather than withdraw troops. Damning as their criticism of Trump may be over Syria, his actions there, as Commander in chief of the armed forces, are not impeachable. What he did in Syria may end up being related to his telephone call to the president of Ukraine–he has strengthened the hand of Vladimir Putin in both cases–but commanding US forces is part of his constitutional duties.

In all this confusion, the American public won’t have the advantage of the sober and complete coverage of the impeachment investigation that took place in 1974. Instead, there will be the now-standard haze of accusations and counter-accusations from serious and less serious sources, including the president’s own Twitter account. Worse, the hearings will obscure the Democratic candidates’ important policy proposals for the 2020 presidential election – climate change, health care, education, gun control and more – and mask the Republicans’ own paucity of initiatives.

Nancy Pelosi is right to conduct a thorough investigation in the House of Representatives, where she and her party have control. Trump has refused all cooperation, claiming executive privilege, pitting the presidency against Congress, a co-equal branch of the government. The House has shown it is willing to play tough too, when it subpoenaed two associates of Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani after they were arrested on campaign-finance charges. Indeed, it has been suggested that the House has the authority to arrest Giuliani himself, something that would certainly liven up the proceedings.

The impeachment proceedings of 2019 are not be those of 1974. Starting in the House and given the balance of Republicans to Democrats in the Senate should give Trump a pass. But given the erratic behavior of Trump as exhibited just now in Syria, there can be no foregone conclusion.