The last time a U.S. president faced a strong movement for impeachment for actual impeachable offenses, one of the major road blocks was fear that an unpopular vice president would take his place, and this road block was removed when Spiro Agnew resigned in the face of criminal charges of cheating on his taxes.
As every American is aware, including even those who have never heard of impeachment, the primary problem with impeaching Trump is the horror of a president Pence. For a long time I tried to explain to people that this was stupid. Pence is already running the show. Impeachment is about placing the executive branch under the rule of law, not about the trivial matter of what individual holds what office for a few years. A President Pence with a Congress that impeaches people would be better than King Donald with Congress acting as court jesters. Impeachment and removal from office are two different things. Et cetera. It doesn’t matter how many reasons you provide, the U.S. public may never support impeachment of Trump as long as Pence is vice president.
I recommend reading a book by Jimmy Breslin about the impeachment of Richard Nixon called How the Good Guys Finally Won. The book is a hagiographic account of then Majority Leader Tip O’Neill’s role in pushing the impeachment of Nixon through the Congress. O’Neill does deserve great praise, in fact. It’s impossible to imagine any member of Congress fulfilling their oath of office to the same extent today. While we all know that the impeachment of Bill Clinton was rammed through Congress against the will of the people by the House Republican leadership, it’s perhaps less known how the House Democratic leadership pushed for the impeachment of Nixon. Members of Congress who moved to impeach Nixon, including the leadership, moved in response to public pressure.
Breslin’s book removes activism from the picture and falsely claims that there were no activist rallies or demonstrations demanding Nixon’s impeachment. (There were demonstrations in front of the Capitol with something we seem to have lost along the way: nude streakers.) Breslin sees history as shaped by a few great men. But his book provides some tips and warnings to us, despite its author’s views. When Congressman Robert Drinan first introduced articles of impeachment against Nixon, his party leadership was against it. In Breslin’s account, they wanted to wait until momentum had built, in order to avoid badly losing a vote on the House floor, which they thought would set impeachment back. So, rather comically, the Speaker, the Majority Leader, and the Whip took turns guarding the House floor at all times in order to be ready to table Drinan’s bill should the Republicans call for a vote on it. They did this up until O’Neill asked Minority Leader Jerry Ford if the Republicans planed to ask for a vote, and Ford replied of course not. The Republicans wanted silence on impeachment, not votes on it. And Drinan’s effort helped move the issue forward.
Another thing that helped move impeachment forward against Nixon was the ACLU asking the House to proceed. Of course, today’s ACLU is not the same organization. Today the ACLU favors banning torture again and again and again, each time pretending that it wasn’t already a felony. But a popular movement has called for impeachment, and who can say the ACLU won’t come around once impeachment appears likely?
It also helped that Judiciary Chair Peter Rodino issued a 718-page report on impeachment. Nixon’s goons went after Rodino and tried to tie him to the mafia. An early vote by Rodino’s Judiciary Committee authorized him to subpoena any agent of the government and that person’s papers, public or private. That’d quickly replace all the chatter about Trump’s tax returns with either Trump’s tax returns or a new impeachable offense. When Rodino was given that authority, almost all of Congress and even the public considered impeachment unlikely if not impossible.
Rodino hired John Doar as special counsel to work on the impeachment, intentionally choosing a well known and respected Republican. Then the House voted to give the Judiciary Committee a million dollars to spend on an investigation. The vote was 367-51. There were Republicans who saw no harm in an investigation, who thought impeachment wouldn’t get anywhere, who thought Nixon was innocent, but who thought Congress had a role to play in our system of government and a responsibility to fill out that role. They also were feeling pressure from their constituents to do their jobs in this matter.
Today the public pressure is there as well. But Trump’s guilt regarding emoluments is public knowledge (and unsubstantiated fantasies regarding Russia are supposed by Democrats to be public knowledge). But it would be helpful for the House to vote a fund for an “investigation,” because it would be part of the proper narrative. As Breslin stresses, facts and laws matter less than appearances.
It would also make sense to hire a special counsel. Doar found that when he looked closely at the information available on Nixon, nothing more was needed to prove his guilt. With regard to Trump, we already knows this. But who knows what an intense examination of the facts could turn up in the way of superfluous evidence? And the evidence isn’t the point. The point is political plausibility.
As soon as impeachment appeared at all plausible against Nixon, public pressure for impeachment – even in Breslin’s account – became intense, and Congress reacted to it. What helped tremendously was polling. The trick today is persuading the polling companies to do the polls, even for money. The few that have been done show the public about evenly spit on impeaching Trump, numbers almost certain to move in favor of impeaching Trump should members of Congress begin pursuing it.
Congress took Nixon to court for refusing to hand over audio tapes. In that case, a Supreme Court that could have been expected to back Nixon instead obeyed pressure from the public and the Congress. In Breslin’s account, however, Nixon would have been impeached whatever way the court ruled. The important thing was that the case was in court.
When the Republicans tried to censure Nixon instead of impeaching him, the Democrats said no. They knew that voters would not be satisfied with anything less than impeachment. That is true again already. Our job is to make Congress aware of it. As of now, unless a Trump offense can somehow be tied to Russia and to a claim that Hillary Clinton “really won,” Democrats in Washington will have no interest in it. Trump could in fact shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. It doesn’t matter. He will not be impeached.
Never mind the whole question of whether future presidents and vice presidents will be expected to obey any laws. It’s all about elections. The Democrats played this same game when Reagan was investigated in the Iran Contra scandal. The Democrats exercised restraint. In the end, they restrained themselves right into a defeat and created the Bush dynasty.
But things were handled differently in 1973. The Democrats made impeachment an issue. In fact, they made it THE issue. And the polls spoke loudly and clearly to Congress members of both parties. Some Democrats, such as Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, started out adamantly opposed to impeachment. But they were pretty easily brought around. The Majority Leader was a Democrat who saw being a Democrat as something noticeably different from being a Republican. Tip O’Neill’s role in the impeachment of Nixon is highlighted in Breslin’s book:
[O’Neill] came into this room in June with a new weapon, another mirror, a forty-page notebook put together by William Hamilton and Staff, pollsters, for William Welsh of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The topic sentence of the report said, “In April our study shows 43 per cent will vote for a Congressman who is inclined to vote for impeachment; 29 per cent would vote for a Congressman who would not be so inclined and 28 per cent feel the Congressman’s stand on impeachment would make no difference at this time.”
A further interpretation of the figures showed that “50 per cent of Republican voters will vote against a Congressman who is inclined not to vote for impeachment, while only 7 per cent of Democrats will vote for a Congressman who is inclined to vote against impeachment.”
… O’Neill went right up to Rostenkowski, because Rostenkowski is Mayor Daley’s play caller with the Illinois Democrats in Congress. A word from Danny is a word from the Hall. Deviation? Try Russia, not Cook County.
“Danny, ol pal, did you see this poll yet?” Tip O’Neill said.
“What poll?” Rostenkowski grumbled. He despises polls, but he had to ask about a poll because he is in politics and he is supposed to ask about a poll.
“It shows here that we could pick up as many as eighty seats the way it’s going now,” O’Neill said.
“And it shows here that there is no way for a Congressman in an urban district to win an election against anybody if he doesn’t vote for impeachment.”
“Where does it show that?”
“Here, look. Only seven percent of the Democrats will vote for a Congressman who is against impeachment. That means a Republican could beat a Democrat in a city if the Republican is for impeachment and the Democrat is against it. Can you imagine that? Say, that’s right. You represent a city, don’t you, Danny?”
O’Neill began to show the poll around. He told Thaddeus Dulski, who comes from upstate Erie County in New York, that the poll showed all rural votes being lost to a Congressman who is against impeachment. “But you don’t have any farms in your district,” he told Dulski. Dulski grumbled. He had a religious belief in the presidency. He also had a lot of farmers in his district. Out on the House floor, when O’Neill saw Angelo Roncallo, a Long Island Republican, he said, “Hey, Angie, old pal. Geez, but you really love it down here, don’t you? Angie, I want you to know something. My door is always open to you, as you know. And to show you how much I think of you, Angie, my door is still going to be open to you next year when you’re not going to be in Congress because of this impeachment.” O’Neill gave a great, fun laugh. Roncallo laughed with him but not as much.
Here’s the part where your history teacher says: Compare and Contrast.
The first thing you’ll notice is that it was all about the damn elections back then, just the same as it is now. But somehow the Democrats saw winning the elections as dependent on doing their jobs, and in fact they won the biggest victories in many years and have never done as well since.
The second thing you’ll notice is that just about everything else was completely different. Elections were losable for incumbents. The Democrats had started impeachment proceedings and made it an issue before the polls compelled them to. The media covered the story. The polling companies did the polls and published them. A labor union was pushing impeachment. And a Congressional leader was lobbying his colleagues in the direction of impeachment. Those six facts appear today to have come from some bizarre parallel universe.
Yet, if we are dedicated to saving this republic, we will endeavor to find a way to substitute for them. We will recruit pro-impeachment challengers to incumbents. We will use civil disobedience, media activism, and legal bribery to lobby Congress as hard as possible to take up impeachment. We will organize in swing districts and commission polls in them. We will report the results on progressive radio and the internet. If we lose now, the good guys won’t have won much forty years ago.