ROBERT COSTA: Hello, I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast.
There is a fascinating new book out that takes a look back at presidential impeachments over the course of American history. The timing for such a discussion is ripe, just weeks ahead of the midterm elections. And based on recent polls, Democrats have a real shot at winning the House majority. And if they do, some Democrats have said they’d be eager to consider impeaching President Donald Trump. Our guest tonight is Peter Baker, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, and co-author of Impeachment: An American History, along with Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Jeffrey Engel.
Only three U.S. presidents have faced impeachment proceedings. Andrew Johnson, back in 1868.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: (From video.) People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.
MR. COSTA: And that was Richard Nixon. But he resigned before he could be impeached. And 20 years ago, in 1998, Peter Baker was one of the first reporters to write about then-President Clinton’s involvement with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (From video.) But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false.
MR. COSTA: But, after an investigation led by independent counsel Ken Starr, Clinton was ultimately impeached for perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. Peter covered the story then, and he joins us now to discuss the new book he has co-authored.
Peter, great to have you with us here on the podcast. When you look at this new book and you think about the historical moment it is because, in a sense, of what’s happening on the horizon, the talk of impeachment for President Trump should the Democrats take over. But take us back 20 years – can you believe it’s been 20 years since President Clinton gave that – gave those remarks? What has changed about impeachment in America, if anything?
PETER BAKER: That’s a great question. Every time have an impeachment we’re rewriting the rules all over again, right, because we only have had these three. And, as you say, Nixon didn’t fully follow through. So we keep trying to redefine what the boundaries are. What are the limits of presidential power? How do we hold presidents accountable if they do do something wrong? Who should hold them accountable, and how should it work?
We only have just very few words as a guide from the framers of the Constitution: high crimes and misdemeanors. What does that mean? They didn’t tell us exactly. So each time this comes up, we’re figuring it out all over again. If it happens that the Democrats win this fall, we might find ourselves once again sort of trying to look back at history and figure out, well, what does that mean when they say high crimes and misdemeanors?
MR. COSTA: When you look back at the Clinton experience, executive privilege for the president, what kind of precedents were set that may affect President Trump should they – the Democrats take action against him?
MR. BAKER: Actually, a lot. I mean, for instance, President Clinton challenged Ken Starr, who was the independent counsel investigating him on a lot of these issues. They went to court and often President Clinton lost. He lost a pretty important 9-0 decision on the Paula Jones lawsuit. The Supreme Court said a president can be sued in a civil court while president. The thinking goes, if you can be sued for a civil court while you’re president obviously then you can be prosecuted for a crime. Now, not everybody agrees with that. That’s a debate we’re still having today. He tried to assert executive privilege, tried to assert something called a protective privilege, that the Secret Service shouldn’t have to testify about what they see up close to a president. In both cases, lost those battles. Those affect presidents that came after, including President Trump.
MR. COSTA: You see the base back then for President Clinton. They stood by him. The Democrats rallied behind President Clinton. Do you see that almost happening with President Trump, a similar dynamic about the prospect of impeachment?
MR. BAKER: Right. There are a lot of things that are similar. And you see – for instance, you see this base sticking by the president. And you see a president excoriating the people coming after him as witch hunt and, you know, partisan and illegitimate investigators. President Trump does it in a more bellicose and more overt and explicit way, but basically the same strategy that President Clinton employed.
The main difference is that President Clinton was much more popular at that time than President Trump is. His approval rating was something like 60 percent throughout this entire process, throughout the entire battle. In fact, after he was impeached, his approval rating went up not down. So that made him ultimately, you know, more empowered to fight off this impeachment. President Trump is around 40, 42, 43 percent. That doesn’t work as well as President Clinton’s approval rating.
Now, the strategy that President Clinton used, though, is one that you see President Trump using, which is to make it as partisan as you possibly can. Make sure that the issue is seen in party lines – in his case, Democrats versus – you know, on defense from what he thought were unfair Republicans, in President Trump’s case unfair Democrats, that liberal mob coming after him. Because if you do that, it means even if you get impeached in the House, they can’t get you in the Senate, because there’s not going to be a two-thirds majority to convict.
MR. COSTA: That two-thirds majority is an important point. I think there’s a lot of confusion sometimes out there about what impeachment means. If a president’s impeached, it doesn’t mean they’re just kicked out of the White House. How does it work?
MR. BAKER: Right. Right. The impeachment means, in effect, like an indictment. So the issue first goes to the House of Representatives. If the House decides to open an inquiry, they can have hearings, they can have subpoenas, they can have witnesses. And then they will eventually take a vote. And the vote would be a majority vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. Now, that happened with Andrew Johnson and that happened with Bill Clinton. In both cases, the House majority said, yes, we impeach you for high crimes and misdemeanors. In effect, they said we charge you, like an indictment.
That then goes to the Senate, where you hold the trial. The senators are, in effect, jurors. And in that case, you can have witnesses again, if you choose. You can have prosecutors from the House. They’re called managers. The president can send his own attorneys to defend him. And eventually you have to have a two-thirds majority if you are going to convict and remove the president.
MR. COSTA: It’s a high bar.
MR. BAKER: Very high. And what that means is, in a Senate that will almost certainly be in the 51-52 vote majority – for either party, whoever wins in November – you can’t get there unless people from both parties agree. And that’s why this partisan debate matters so much. As long as it’s a partisan thing, it’s hard to imagine 15-16 Republican senators agreeing to go along with removing the president from office. But we don’t know what Robert Mueller has. And he may come back with something that changes the dynamics. But as of the moment, it’s a seen in very much a partisan lens.
MR. COSTA: You know that line from William Faulkner: The past is never past, it’s not even past.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. COSTA: I mean, you think about your essay here on Clinton. Some of the players today – Justice Kavanaugh – working for Ken Starr back in the ’90s. Senator Lindsey Graham, then a member of the House, a major figure.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Emmet Flood is the White House counsel. He was an attorney at that time for Bill Clinton. Justice Kavanaugh worked for Ken Starr, as you point out. Lindsey Graham really had his star turn – his emergence on the national stage was during the Clinton impeachment. He was one of the figures who stood out in the prosecution during the trial in the Senate. And, yeah, it’s – and sometimes the echoes are really pretty strong. And other times, obviously, it’s significantly different.
What President Clinton was accused of, and what he actually ultimately in some ways admitted, was committing – not telling the truth under oath, trying to impede a lawsuit. But it was a lawsuit about something that was not directly involving his use of power in office. So the question then was, yeah, maybe it was a crime that he committed, but was it a crime against the country? Was it a high crime?
President Trump, we’re talking about, could be different. We could be talking about involvement with a foreign government. We don’t know enough yet to say that. We could be talking about abusing his power to obstruct the investigation by firing the FBI chief. On the other hand you have people say, look, that’s within his rights as president. He is using his power under the Constitution, and you can’t impeach him for that.
MR. COSTA: Final thing. If President Trump picked up this book, Impeachment: An American History, and he saw all the President Clinton got in following his interview with the prosecutors, with the special counsel, why would he ever do an interview with Robert Mueller, looking at history?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah, I don’t know that we’re going to ever see an interview with Robert Mueller because I think he does understand the risk there. I think his lawyers have banged on him enough to understand that sitting down with a prosecutor who can charge you with perjury for any mistake you make, any lie you tell, is a very dangerous thing. You know, the old cliché in Washington is the coverup more than the crime. That would be true of any interview if you give false testimony. So I’m not sure we’ll ever see him testify. The lesson from the Clinton impeachment probably is, better off not.
MR. COSTA: Peter Baker, thanks so much for joining us to talk about your book, Impeachment: An American History, which you co-authored along with John Meacham, Timothy Naftali and Jeffrey Engel.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen on the Apple Podcast app or watch us online on the Washington Week website, or on YouTube. And while you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. And be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.