Why the Nixon impeachment worked

Even President Donald Trump, according to a CNN source, now fears that impeachment is a "...

Posted: Dec 12, 2018 2:29 PM
Updated: Dec 12, 2018 2:29 PM

Even President Donald Trump, according to a CNN source, now fears that impeachment is a "real possibility."

But many Democrats are now worried that if they move forward with impeachment proceedings, led by incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, the decision will inevitably backfire on their party. The investigation, skeptics warn, will produce an instant backlash. Democrats will appear to be reckless partisans, seeking to undertake a coup. Every gain that has been made in the midterm will disappear.

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The Democratic fears likely stem from the memories of the 1990s, when the effort by Speaker Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans to impeach President Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice turned into their political nightmare. Public opinion turned against the GOP and Clinton ended his term with high and steady approval ratings.

It is reasonable for Democrats to worry that history might be repeated.

Yet sometimes impeachment proceedings are warranted. If the findings of Robert Mueller's final report are as bad as some suspect, based on recent court filings and guilty pleas, any impeachment proceedings initiated in the aftermath could broaden, rather than narrow, opposition against the President.

This was the case when the House Judiciary Committee, under the chairmanship of Congressman Peter Rodino, impeached Richard Nixon in 1974.

Rodino found himself at the crossroads of history. He had only become the chairman in January 1973, at a time when most Republicans condemned the Watergate investigation as a partisan witch hunt. During his first year as chairman, the evidence continued to mount, suggesting that impeachment proceedings were warranted. The Senate investigation produced clear evidence that Nixon had abused his authority.

In addition, the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, in which Nixon moved to fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox who was investigating the Watergate scandal, demonstrated that the president was intent on obstructing justice.

When the House officially launched an impeachment process the following year, there were many observers who doubted whether Rodino, who was in his mid-60s, was qualified to do the job. Rodino was a relatively unknown Democrat from New Jersey and came from a state with a reputation of high levels of corruption. Notwithstanding the doubts, he handled the job with poise.

Rodino started by hiring John Doar, one of the finest lawyers from the Department of Justice to serve as chief counsel. With a talented staff of about 100, including Yale Law School graduate Hillary Rodham, Rodino went to work. In methodical fashion the committee interviewed witnesses, pored over the documents and the history of impeachment, and worked to forge a consensus. Reporter Elizabeth Drew noted in her diary: "Rodino wants to appear patient, move cautiously, to exhaust -- and to appear to have exhausted -- other remedies, so as to have the broadest possible committee support behind any moves he makes."

He kept moving forward even as Republicans, as late as April 1974, stood by the president. The White House was still calling the whole matter a "witch hunt."

The entire nation tuned in to watch the final deliberations on television and to see whether Republicans would join the Democrats in acknowledging the reality of Nixon's actions. Time magazine described the scene as somber: "The room was silent, and so, in a sense, was a watching nation. One by one, the strained and solemn faces of the 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee were focused on by the television cameras. One by one, their names were called. One by one, they cast the most momentous vote of their political lives, or of any representative of the American people in a century."

The process eventually produced bipartisan results. On July 27, the committee voted 27 to 11 in favor of the first article of impeachment (obstruction of justice). Six of the committee's 17 Republicans joined the majority. "In all this," the article said, "Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States."

The committee passed a second article charging him with abuse of power and a third for refusing to honor congressional subpoenas -- both with support from Republican and Democratic House Judiciary Committee members. Rodino was so shaken by the process that he went to a back room following the vote on the third article. In tears, he called his wife to say: "I hope we've done the right thing."

After the Supreme Court forced the administration to release White House recordings made at the time of the scandal, committee members heard the "Smoking Gun" tape proving that the President had obstructed justice and had been involved in Watergate. Rodino reconvened the committee. All of the Republicans now unanimously joined in favor of the articles of impeachment.

When Nixon was president, the House Judiciary Committee helped to ensure that the investigation into the President's crimes was thorough and that the final decision had bipartisan support. Rodino always felt the immense weight of what his panel was doing. When it became clear that President Nixon had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, the committee was crucial in making certain that he was held accountable for his actions.

When Mueller's report becomes public, Congressman Nadler and the House Judiciary Committee will similarly have a big decision on their hands. If the committee decides to move forward with impeachment, Rodino provides a model for Nadler as to how this can be done in a fair fashion and in a way that builds a national consensus over what Congress needs to do.

We are not there yet. And it is important for the House to wait until all the information is gathered. But certainly, we are much closer to triggering this process than we were when President Trump began his term. Until now, the Republican Congress has dropped the ball on handling its oversight function. The time has come for the House Democrats to fill the void.

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