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How Nixon, Clinton and Johnson dealt with the threat of impeachment

Impeachment is a rare event in American politics. Amid the past few weeks of public hearings, we have wondered how this episode compares to previous instances of impeachment. Amna Nawaz spoke with three historians, each focused on a former president who had to grapple with that threat: Peter Baker on Bill Clinton, Timothy Naftali on Richard Nixon and Brenda Wineapple on Andrew Johnson.

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  • 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:

    Well, it's hard to do in 90 seconds, but we will give it a try.

    Look, President Clinton got caught up in a sex scandal. He was being accused 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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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-N.C.:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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.

    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.

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