ROBERT COSTA: How does President Trump’s impeachment defense compare to President Clinton’s and President Nixon’s? This is the Washington Week Extra.
Good evening. As we discussed on the program, the impeachment proceedings against President Trump entered a new phase this week after a historic House vote.
Joining us to continue this conversation, Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; Jake Sherman, senior writer for POLITICO and co-author of Playbook; and Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and co-author of Impeachment: An American History.
As the co-author of Impeachment: An American History and – (laughter) – the writer of The Breach, which was published in 2000 –
PETER BAKER: I did not cover the Johnson impeachment. I’m just going to say that upfront. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Peter – we know you didn’t cover Johnson. I mean, the ageless Peter Baker here. But you did cover President Clinton.
MR. BAKER: I did, yeah.
MR. COSTA: When you look back at that in particular, what stands out about President Trump’s impeachment process right now that stands in contrast to what you saw and covered then?
MR. BAKER: Well, a couple things are similar and a couple things are different. First of all, let’s just say upfront that the allegations are very different, right, and we shouldn’t make a comparison. One was accused of lying under oath and obstruction of justice in a sexual harassment lawsuit, and the other is talking about abuse of power to convince a foreign government to help his domestic political situation. Very different.
Other than that, though, you hear echoes, right? And everybody, you know, is now taking other sides. Back in – 20 years ago, it was the Democrats who were complaining about a coup, and they used words like “lynching,” and they said the process is terrible, and they used the word “witch hunt.” Today, of course, it’s the other side. And likewise, back then the Republicans were talking about rule of law and how solemn this was and we do this in sadness not in any partisan anger, and of course that’s what Nancy Pelosi was saying this week.
What’s different is 20 years ago when they launched the impeachment inquiry 31 Democrats did vote for that. They didn’t vote in the final vote – only five votes for the Democrats for the final impeachment – but the 31 said we have to at least have an inquiry. This week you saw no Republicans say that there should be an inquiry into President Trump. We are hardened even more than we were 20 years ago. Our parties are more divided, more ideological, more polarized than they were even then, and we thought it was pretty bad then.
MR. COSTA: And President Nixon didn’t have a conservative media ecosystem to back him up on impeachment. So how does this White House see the whole Republican Party and also just the conservative side of politics in America, as a protection of sorts perhaps as they face all of these challenges?
VIVIAN SALAMA: It’s been an interesting time for the White House as far as thinking that the Republican and conservative media is on their side here because there have been moments where even Fox News and some of the other more conservative news organizations have been a little bit concerned and, you know, pointing out some of the issues. When the transcript came out a lot of them raised a concern about the fact that the president asked the president of another country to get involved in the elections, and so this has been an issue. Obviously, the president still has his allies within the media, but for the most part this has been something where he’s even gone after Fox News and criticized them because he doesn’t feel like they’re backing him enough. And so, obviously, technology has changed since the Nixon era as well, so we have Twitter now that the president can kind of go out and defend himself, but you know, it’s been – it’s been shifting for sure.
MR. COSTA: Nancy?
NANCY CORDES: You know, one thing I think is interesting is that people look back and say Bill Clinton was impeached. They don’t look back and say but it was mostly Republicans, you know. If you’re impeached, you’re impeached, and I think it’s the same thing here. If President Clinton – President Trump is impeached, it looks right now like it will be a partisan affair, but when viewed in hindsight, you know, people won’t say, oh, but I recall that – you know, that this was all Democrats who did this. What people will say is he – you know, he’ll have that asterisk next to his name and it’ll say he was impeached.
MR. BAKER: The one difference, though, is that both Clinton and Nixon were second-term presidents. Neither one of them had another election ahead. So if President Trump is impeached with the asterisk, you’re right, in history of course, and he’s acquitted – which people think he would be at the moment in the Senate, absent a big change in information – then he goes to the electorate, and that’s the real judgment, right? In this case there’s an appeals court after the trial. And the appeals court, the American public, do they think the impeachment was a justified action or do they think the president of the United States is fit for office? That’s going to be the ultimate judgment.
JAKE SHERMAN: Yeah, and the White House tends to be believe, and it’s tough to put much stock in it because they were so wrong about so many things in the midterm elections and misjudged so much – they believe that this helps the president, riles up the base, much as Judge Kavanaugh – the Judge Kavanaugh episode did, and we don’t know that; we don’t know that for sure. But it brings me back to something President Trump told me before the – right after the election in an interview for my book about Congress. He said now Democrats control it, it’ll be much easier to work with Democrats; Republicans were too nitpicky, they wanted too many changes with legislation. And now here we are with the Democratic majority just, you know, digging in their heels and revving their engines – two mixed metaphors there – (laughter) – but, you know, just raring at the opportunity to impeach him.
MR. COSTA: What happened to gun control, the USMCA – the new trade deal? Is that all stalled amid impeachment?
MS. SALAMA: I think a lot of it was stalled before impeachment as well, not necessarily, you know, linked to this issue, but it certainly does not help the matter. With Congress engaged now in the impeachment proceedings, it’s definitely going to make it a lot harder for the president to try to get any of his trade deals through. Of course, China just hit a bump in the road because the place where he was supposed to sign the agreement with China was in Chile, and that conference was canceled over protests, so that one is a totally different issue. But definitely for the USMCA – the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal – it remains to be seen. You know, the administration continues to express optimism that they’ll get it at some point, but when – maybe next year? It’s hard to say at this point.
MS. CORDES: I also think, you know, let’s say that this impeachment does come in December, a trial, and he’s acquitted in January. That’s still 10 months before the election and so much could happen between now and then. There are multiple court cases that are still working their way through the system, other kinds of information that Democrats are trying to get their hands on – his financial records, his tax records, and you know, on and on. So even after this impeachment fight ends, there could be other investigations, other –
MR. BAKER: Maybe they can impeach him again. (Laughter.)
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, but that’s what I was going to –
MS. CORDES: They can’t – they can’t impeach him again. I think it is a one-time thing. But they can still trumpet investigations, they can still hold public hearings. You know, it’s certainly not going to be over for him at any point.
MR. COSTA: Does the Constitution have a rule about impeachment?
MR. BAKER: That’s a good question. I was going to say –
MS. CORDES: I believe you’re not allowed to impeach –
MR. BAKER: A second time on different charges?
MS. CORDES: Squared. (Laughter.) Yeah, no, I –
MR. COSTA: We have some constitutional lawyers watching.
MR. BAKER: Politically, obviously.
MR. COSTA: Send us some notes at Washington Week’s website. Yes.
MR. SHERMAN: But think about it, politically you really only have one –
MR. BAKER: As a matter of politics.
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, as a matter of politics you can’t really impeach him again. But that is something Democrats I know are thinking about, because what do they do for the next 10 months, just like you said, Nancy? Like, if other stuff comes out they’re just going to be – their hands are going to be tied and they’re going to – you know, impeachment is kind of the ultimate remedy or the ultimate check on a president’s misbehavior or allegations of misbehavior, so it’s an important thing to keep in mind.
MS. SALAMA: Speaking of Democrats, then we’re going to be going into the primaries if this stretches into the new year, and you’re going to have Democratic candidates now trying to get their messages out and distinguish themselves from their competitors, all the while everyone’s wanting to talk about impeachment and the president is going to be lobbing verbal grenades at them all the while. It’s going to be very, very difficult for them to stay focused on the issues that they want to stay focused on.
MR. BAKER: But maybe that’s not bad for them because, in fact, it keeps the competition between them from getting so over the top and so highlighted in the media and in the political ecosphere that they can have their competition without –
MR. COSTA: They’ve been under the radar for months now.
MR. BAKER: Right, and not tear each other down, in a way.
MR. COSTA: It’s always a second-tier story because of what’s happening in Washington.
MR. BAKER: Exactly, if it was a first-tier story somebody would be emerging much more bruised.
MS. SALAMA: As long as they could get their different messages out. Otherwise, how do you know who to choose?
MR. BAKER: Individually it would be a problem; I mean collectively whoever emerged would be less damaged.
MS. SALAMA: Sure, yeah, right.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.