A look back at presidential impeachment in U.S. history

AMNA NAWAZ: Impeachment is a rare event. And, as the nation has watched the last weeks
of public hearings, we have naturally wondered how this time in history compares to the others. To answer that question, I spoke with three
historians last week. Each focused on a former president who had
to deal with the threat of impeachment. To tell us about Bill Clinton’s impeachment,
Peter Baker joins us. He is chief White House correspondent at The
New York Times and co-author of “Impeachment: An American History.” On Richard Nixon, Timothy Naftali joins us. He is a professor at New York University and
former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. And he also co-authored “Impeachment: An American
History.” And for Andrew Johnson, Brenda Wineapple joins
us. She is the author of “The Impeachers: The
Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.” Thank you, all of you, for being here. And, Peter, I will start with you. I want to go kind of backwards in time here. If you had to give sort of a 90-second history
lesson on what the story of Bill Clinton’s impeachment was about, how would do you that? PETER BAKER, White House Correspondent, The
New York Times: Well, it’s hard to do in 90 seconds, but we will give it a try. (LAUGHTER) PETER BAKER: Look, President Clinton got caught
up in a sex scandal. He was being accuse of sexual harassment in
a lawsuit. And as part of that lawsuit, he was asked
to testify about his relationship with other women. He lied about a relationship with a former
intern named Monica Lewinsky. BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United
States: I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. PETER BAKER: And the House ultimately impeached
him along party lines for perjury and obstruction of justice. MAN: I hereby deliver these articles of impeachment. PETER BAKER: It went to the Senate for trial,
but he ended up getting acquitted on a pretty strong vote. The prosecutors didn’t get more than 50 votes,
even though they needed 67 to convict him. WILLIAM REHNQUIST, Former U.S. Supreme Court
Chief Justice: It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said William Jefferson Clinton
be and he is hereby is acquitted of the charges in the said articles. PETER BAKER: That was the crux of it. But, really, at the heart, of course, are
all kinds of interesting questions about accountability, balance of power, separation of powers, what’s
important in terms of impeachment, what constitutes a high crime, misdemeanor, and these are the
issues we see today as well. BILL CLINTON: I want to say again to the American
people how profoundly sorry I am. AMNA NAWAZ: Tim Naftali, what about you? Tell us the story of Richard Nixon’s impeachment. And what was at stake there? TIMOTHY NAFTALI, Former Director, Nixon Presidential
Library: Well, Richard Nixon gets caught up in a — an espionage and break-in story. In the summer of 1972, a group of burglars
are caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate. This leads to some excellent journalism, largely
by Woodward and Bernstein. And after the 1972 election, a special Senate
Watergate Committee looks into two issues and questions of misconduct in the campaign. That leads to very celebrated public hearings. ROBERT MACNEIL, “NewsHour” Co-Founder: Good
evening from Washington. In a few moments, we’re going to bring you
the entire proceedings in the first day of the Senate Watergate hearings. MAN: The committee will come to order. TIMOTHY NAFTALI: No one’s talking about impeachment
at that point. SEN. SAM ERVIN (D-NC): We are beginning these hearings
today in an atmosphere of utmost gravity. TIMOTHY NAFTALI: But public hearings that
bring out the possibility that the president himself was involved in a cover-up and the
fact that the president is taping his conversations in the White House. ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD, Former White House
Aide: I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir. TIMOTHY NAFTALI: There might not have been
an impeachment inquiry at all, but the president is very nervous, because, in addition to the
Senate looking into him, there is a special prosecutor that’s looking into him. And that special prosecutor wants access to
those tapes. The president doesn’t want those tapes to
go to the special prosecutor. He fights it. And when he doesn’t get what he wants, and
is on the verge of losing in court, he fires the special prosecutor. And not only does he fire Archibald Cox, but
he tries to put the entire independent investigation out of business. That sends a shockwave through the country
after something called the Saturday Night Massacre. And it is then the not just Democrats, who
control both houses, by the way, in Congress at that time, but Republicans too, join and
say, we need to investigate. From that point in late ’73, until August
of ’74, the House is engaged in an impeachment inquiry. Ultimately, the House votes three articles
of impeachment. All three have bipartisan support. Before those articles of impeachment can be
voted on by the entire House, Richard Nixon, who understands his support is crumbling,
Richard Nixon resigns. RICHARD NIXON, Former President of the United
States: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. TIMOTHY NAFTALI: Richard Nixon’s case involved
obstruction of justice and abuse of power. And it’s that abuse of power element of the
Watergate story that seems so relevant in the current discussion of Water — of impeachment. AMNA NAWAZ: And we’re going to dig through
some of those issues you raised there in a bit more detail. But, Brenda Wineapple, over to you. Tell us the story of Andrew Johnson and his
impeachment proceedings. BRENDA WINEAPPLE, Author, “The Impeachers:
The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation”: Johnson was impeached just
three years after the Civil War. And when you think about what was going on
there, and that the country was in need, desperate need, of putting itself back together again,
you had a chief executive who assigned himself the role of not so much peacemaker, but a
person who restored the South or wanted to restore the South to its former supremacy,
which was white supremacy. And it wasn’t a question of treason or bribery. But when Andrew Johnson actually broke a law
that Congress had passed in order to rein him in, so that Johnson would execute the
laws of Congress, which really restored civil rights and finally voting rights to black
men in the South to give them representation in the country, when Johnson broke that law,
the House had no choice, it felt, and voted overwhelmingly to impeach Andrew Johnson. So, technically, he was impeached because
he stepped on a statute, because he violated a law, he broke the law, but it had been a
long time coming. And for many, many people in the country and
certainly in Congress among the Republicans felt that he’d been abusing power, denying
the legitimacy of Congress and obstructing justice and the law for much, much too long. And he was really squandering, they felt,
the victory, the Union victory, which had abolished slavery, but not its effect. AMNA NAWAZ: Central to these narratives is,
of course, how each of these presidents reacted in the time, in the moment to the impeachment
proceedings. Peter, I will come back to you here. What do we know? And how would you characterize the Clinton
reaction to the impeachment proceedings? PETER BAKER: Well, Clinton took the approach
of being above it all. That’s the image he wanted to project to the
country. He was focused on the people’s business. He wasn’t going to get down in the dirt with
all these other people who are obsessed with scandal. And he tried to, therefore, basically shove
it off to the side, in effect. He wasn’t going to dignify it, if you will,
with being too obsessed by it in public. Behind the scenes, of course, he was obsessed
by it. He was consumed by it. He was filled with rage and grievance and
anger and unhappiness and resentment. He was so absorbed by it, that people would
leave meetings with him and say it wasn’t — it was like he wasn’t even there. One of his aides during a trip to the Middle
East when he in — I think in Gaza trying to negotiate Middle East peace between the
Palestinians and the Israelis noticed — over his shoulder, they noticed the president writing
on his notepad: “Focus on your job. Focus on your job.” He was trying very hard to project this idea
of a president who was unaffected. But, in fact, he was, as any person, I suppose,
would be quite consumed by it in private. Now, the difference between him and the other
two presidents is, he was very popular at the time. So he had a wellspring of public support. His numbers were above 60 percent approval
rating throughout the entire investigation by Ken Starr and the House impeachment and
Senate trial. In fact, it went up, not down, the day after
the impeachment vote in the House. It went up to 73 percent. So he had that sort of basic political base
to work from that other presidents didn’t have. But behind the scenes, of course, it was an
all-consuming thing for him. AMNA NAWAZ: Brenda, what about you? What do we know? Obviously, we didn’t have tweets in real time
reacting to what was going on in any of the proceedings. (LAUGHTER) AMNA NAWAZ: But what do we know about the
way that Andrew Johnson was reacting to those proceedings? BRENDA WINEAPPLE: If Andrew Johnson could
have tweeted, he would have been tweeting, believe me. He really — he was aggrieved too, just like
Peter was saying Clinton was. And he wanted to take his case to the people. He understood what impeachment was, but it
was almost as if he didn’t, and he thought that, if could go on a series of rallies and
get people behind him, that somehow none of this would be happening. And his lawyers very deftly and very carefully
warned him to stay in the White House, which they made him do. He wanted to testify on his own behalf. But they were really afraid. He was a very pugnacious person, and they
were very afraid of what he might say, what he might do, and that he could further alienated
people who may have been wobbling. And there were a couple of who really were. AMNA NAWAZ: And, Tim, I found it so interesting. You told my colleague earlier that, in the
moment, Richard Nixon actually withdrew. He wasn’t out there publicly advocating for
himself. But I’m curious about how the rest of his
party reacted. It’s so interesting we see now Republicans
in the House really standing by President Trump, staunchly defending him. Was that true of President Nixon and his party
at the time? TIMOTHY NAFTALI: In 1974, the public had no
idea that the leadership of the Republican Party was hoping that Richard Nixon would
resign. When he didn’t resign, those leaders felt
they had no choice but to stand behind him. They discovered that there was a lot of support
for Richard Nixon outside of Washington. And so they decided they had no better alternative
than to stand by him. What happens in this story is that rank-and-file
Republicans, the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, as they absorbed the
data that’s amassed for them, they come to the conclusion that Richard Nixon staying
in power would be a threat to the Constitution. And they decided, against their political
judgment — their political fortunes, and against the recommendations of the leaders
of the Republican Party, to vote against the president. So there’s — there are two different stories
there. There’s a story of the Republican leadership
in 1974, which ultimately stands behind Nixon, and there’s the story of the Republicans on
the House Judiciary Committee, many of whom thought they had no alternative but to do
their constitutional duty and vote for impeachment. AMNA NAWAZ: Brenda Wineapple, I will give
you the last word here. Of course, a lot of people are studying these
moments in history to see if there are lessons to be learned. What do you see in the way of echoes of past
impeachment proceedings or parallels between those proceedings in the past and the one
we’re seeing today? BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Well, one interesting parallel
is the fact that there was an election coming. Johnson was impeached in February of 1868. The trial started very soon after that. And, by May, you have the Republican National
Convention starting to nominate a candidate. So that was a consideration, a very important
consideration, determining how some of the members of Congress voted. And as you probably know, Johnson was acquitted
by only one vote. So there are a lot of politics that come into
play, in addition to the constitutional issues. The interesting thing, finally, though, is
that Johnson was impeached. He wasn’t removed. He wasn’t convicted, but he goes down in history
as one of the few presidents, one of the two, one of the only two, to be impeached. And that’s a stain that will stay on his record
forever. AMNA NAWAZ: Just a brief look at three important
moments in our American history. Brenda Wineapple, Timothy Naftali, and Peter
Baker, thank you so much for being with us. BRENDA WINEAPPLE: Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *