Going Forward With Impeachment, America Can Look Back

Richard Nixon departing the White House after resigning on Aug. 9, 1974. (Photo credit: Oliver F. Atkins, Nixon Presidential Materials Project.)

WASHINGTON (CN) — After more than 30 hours of witness testimony, House lawmakers must hammer out the charges they believe President Donald Trump should face before they can send Articles of Impeachment to the Senate.

Contrasting Trump’s proceedings with those that occurred in 1998, Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, noted that most Democrats agreed that President Bill Clinton had done something wrong by lying in a deposition.

Giving this inquiry a different tone, however, Republicans are not ceding that Trump has committed a crime.

Kalt said the expected vote by the House, followed by a Senate trial, all while the 2020 presidential election is underway carry big implications for presidential power. If a president is impeached in the House but not convicted in the Senate, the proceedings send a mixed message about the extent of executive power.

“Trump has broken a lot of norms here,” Kalt said in an interview.

Kim Wehle, a professor focusing on administrative law at the University of Baltimore, focused meanwhile on how social media has changed society since America faced its last impeachment push with Clinton.

Wehle said social media generally plays a large role in the polarization of Congress today. Apart from Russian actors using social media to push false narratives, and Republican congressmen in turn furthering these positions, Trump’s heavy social media presence makes it harder for constituents to hear dissenting opinions from lawmakers.

Social media was not a factor in the Clinton administration. While scholars had just begun researching the 24-hour news cycle in 1998, Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed University, said modern media is leagues away from that.

“I don’t recall anything like this anti-impeachment social media, almost coordinated with media outlets, at a level anything like this,” Gronke said in an interview. “There also wasn’t the resistance of the White House. We have a president who is tweeting while witnesses are testifying. There’s no precedent for this.”

President Donald Trump gestures after speaking at a campaign rally on Nov. 26, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

It is also new terrain for the president to face impeachment over conduct that affects U.S. foreign policy. What hasn’t changed, Gronke said, is how quickly the impeachment inquiry hardens political lines.

“We saw many of the same sort of partisan division that we’re seeing in this one, and I think it was a case where we’re going to have these deep divides, in the historical memory of all the people who were a part of that,” Gronke said.

With the House Judiciary Committee set to begin its own hearings Wednesday, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told his constituents last week that the investigation wasn’t taking a turkey break.

“Through weeks of transcribed interviews and depositions and the just concluded two weeks of public hearings, we have found damning evidence that the president of the United States abused his power to obtain the assistance of a foreign power in his reelection campaign,” he posted on Facebook. “As we have throughout this investigation, we will be moving quickly and working through the Thanksgiving holiday. Simply put, this is too important to wait.”

Once the Judiciary Committee votes on specific charges, they go to the House floor for a vote. If an Article of Impeachment is adopted, then the president is impeached, and the charges are sent to the Senate for a trial.

The number of charges Congress can draft is unlimited, and Wehle in an interview picked through the explicit impeachable actions mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

“Bribery’s clear, treason is clear, then there’s a catch-all which says ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ which is congressional discretion,” she said. “The president is almost a fiduciary for the people. He’s only there to represent the people. So, if you take that power and use it for yourself, then that’s an abuse of power.”

President Andrew Johnson was charged with 11 separate crimes, most of which related to having dismissed Edwin Stanton – President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war – after the Senate reappointed him. All 11 articles of impeachment were adopted against Johnson in 1868.

Before that, lawmakers attempted to levy charges against President John Tyler but never brought an impeachment to fruition.

It would be another century before the House approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon in 1974. A week after their introduction, however, Nixon resigned, pre-empting a vote.

President Bill Clinton faced two articles of impeachment, crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice, related to his sworn testimony. The House considered a second count of perjury and one count of abuse of power but not did not adopt them.

Both investigations into Nixon and Clinton had special counsel investigations. That prosecutor, an appointee of the attorney general, investigates claims of wrongdoing then presents facts from the investigation to Congress. Wehle emphasized that these prosecutors can also subpoena witnesses to appear before a grand jury, making it harder for them to stonewall or ditch their congressional subpoenas.

If the House impeaches the president by adopting an article, lawmakers then appoint managers who present the case at trial in the Senate. Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, said the 13 managers appointed in the impeachment trial against Clinton were selected because they had legal experience. The House also could appoint a non-lawmaker as a manager, he said.

Interestingly, he added, two managers appointed in the trial against Clinton are now Republican congressman on the House Judiciary Committee: Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Steve Chabot of Ohio.

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1993. (White House Photograph Office)

Contrasting the Clinton and Trump impeachment inquiries, Kalt called it clear that Senate Republicans did not want the Clinton impeachment to go forward, whereas in Trump’s inquiry, he said Senate and House Democrats are well-aligned in their intent to continue to trial.

“That said, no one wants this to drag on too long, proceedings are designed to not be manipulatable in that way,” Kalt said. “The main similarity is that this is going forward even though no one expects it to succeed.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler invited Trump to attend the hearings with White House counsel, saying it would be a preferable alternative to complaining about the process.

“I hope that he chooses to participate in the inquiry, directly or through counsel, as other presidents have done before him,” Nadler said.

When the Democratic-held House outlined rules for the inquiry in a 232-196 vote this Halloween, lawmakers retraced congressional precedent set in 1998. A resolution to begin the Clinton impeachment inquiry passed a Republican majority in the House by a vote of 258-176.

The 40th U.S. Congress was less divided in 1868 when it voted 126-47 to impeach Johnson.

Meanwhile with Nixon, a unified investigation into his complicity in the now-infamous Watergate Hotel break-in cleared a Republican-majority House by an overwhelming 410-4.

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