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How this impeachment compares to its historical predecessors

Wednesday’s House proceedings represent only the third time in U.S. history that the body has debated impeaching a president. What has changed in the decades since previous impeachment processes -- and what hasn't? Yale University professor Beverly Gage joins John Yang to discuss the role of the modern media, varying reliance on the courts and whether impeachment has become a partisan tool.

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  • John Yang:

    As we have been saying, today's House proceedings are only the third time that body House has debated impeaching a president. So, where does all this fit in the historical context?

    Beverly Gage is a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, which is where she is tonight.

    Professor Gage, thanks so much for joining us.

    The historical aspect of this, how does what is going on now compare with previous impeachments, not so much with the specifics of what the presidents are being charged or the allegations against the president, but the political environment, the political struggles around these proceedings?

  • Beverly Gage:

    We have been a moment like this a few times in American history, so, in the 1860s, the Andrew Johnson impeachment, of course, Watergate in the 1970s, and then the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

    And I would say what they have in common is that, in each of those cases, we saw very particular battles about very particular events. The actual charges that were brought in impeachment proceedings were about very specific acts, but they all took place within maybe a larger set of political conflicts.

    And those political acts, those acts that were so central to the impeachment proceedings really tended to fit into narratives that critics certainly already had about each of these presidents. And I think that's the case with Trump as well.

  • John Yang:

    Is there something you can see about the differences in the political atmospheres, that sort of the criticisms that were already present about the way that those presidents have responded to what was going on and how their parties responded to what was going on?

  • Beverly Gage:

    Yes, I think our best point of reference is really Watergate in the 1970s, which is long enough ago to see some pretty big differences and really structural changes that have happened in American politics.

    You know, in certain ways, Trump and Nixon are quite similar political figures in terms of their personalities, their combativeness toward their political critics.

    But I think we're in a very different atmosphere in a lot of ways. If you look at the 1970s, the parties had a lot more overlap in terms of ideology. They were a lot less national, so the structure of the parties was different. The structure of the media was really different.

    There wasn't any FOX News, and there wasn't anything like Twitter, where the president was able to really directly get his message out. And you see a lot of other structural differences already in kind of how impeachment proceedings are going along.

    We're seeing a lot less use of the courts now than we saw under Nixon. And, of course, politically, one of the one big questions is how is this going to affect the 2020 election. Both in the 1970s and the 1990s, you were talking about presidents who had already been elected to second terms.

    And, here, we have this big reelection really hanging over the entire affair.

  • John Yang:

    You talk about Watergate. It was the Republicans who told President Nixon it was time to go.

    But then, in the more recent cases, President Clinton and President Trump, we have had their parties rallying around their president. Does that speak to the nature of the allegations against them, or does that speak to the political atmosphere of the times?

  • Beverly Gage:

    I think it speaks to a little of each.

    We do have a story of Watergate in which that was a very, very long process, from the middle of 1972, when the burglary actually happened, all the way through to August of 1974, when Nixon finally resigned.

    And, actually, for most of that time, the Republican Party stuck very fiercely with Nixon, as the Democrats did with Clinton and as the Republicans appear to be doing with Trump as well.

    I think what happened in 1974 is really that Nixon had taken a stand that he had not participated in the burglary, he had not participated in the cover-up. And so, when the tapes finally came out showing that, in fact, he had quite explicitly been lying, that was a genuine shock to many of his Republican allies.

    And, at that moment, but very, very late in the process, they suggested they were going to turn on him.

    Trump has taken a very, very different approach to the whole thing by saying, yes, of course I did the things that you are suggesting that I did, but they are perfectly fine.

    So we might have new revelations — and, in fact, I think we will as this continues — but it's a very different strategy, very different set of tactics coming out of the White House.

  • John Yang:

    In the first 220 years of this nation, we had only one president face this — face an impeachment proceeding.

    Now we're having the second in about 20 years, and the third in about 45 years. What does that say? What — as a historian, what do you think that says?

  • Beverly Gage:

    Well, I think it's partly that, after the Johnson impeachment, the particular politics of Reconstruction were so specific to that moment, what was happening in the Republican Party, the reentry of the South, that it didn't have a lot of parallels over the next century and didn't tend to look to impeachment for an option.

    Of course, since Nixon, we have seen these three sets of impeachment proceedings, Nixon, Clinton and now Trump. And I do think they have fed on each other a little bit. Some of it is just that the pace of our politics is different, but we are seeing heightened levels of partisanship, and the fact that we're getting a little bit of a kind of tit for tat situation.

    Though a lot of people in the end recognize the legitimacy of Watergate, there was always a core of Republicans who felt that it was a witch-hunt, an unfair attack on the presidency. Some of those folks were the ones who went on the attack against Bill Clinton.

    And then, of course, the Clinton impeachment really set a precedent for a highly partisan set of processes that now different people are looking back to as their primary point of reference.

  • John Yang:

    President Clinton, of course, acquitted in the Senate. It looks like that President Trump will probably be acquitted in the Senate.

    Has the nature of impeachment changed? Has it now become not this rare event, but become a tool in the partisan arsenal?

  • Beverly Gage:

    I think that that's partly a fair characterization.

    I mean, one of the strange things about our history of impeachment is that, actually, it's never worked. So, Johnson was impeached, but stayed in office. Nixon was about to be impeached, but he resigned, so didn't go through the full impeachment and trial process. Bill Clinton was, in fact, impeached and put on trial, but also remained in office.

    And so I think we are seeing it being used, to some degree, as a partisan tool. But we're also seeing it, you know, as a check for rule of law, for other more principled aspects. But it doesn't seem like it's going to be terribly effective in terms of removing the president from office in this case, as it really hasn't been in the past.

  • John Yang:

    Beverly Gage of Yale University, thank you very much.

  • Beverly Gage:

    Thanks a lot.

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