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The Precedent for Impeachment: Nixon, Not Clinton

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tags: impeachment, Nixon, Clinton, Trump



Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) and Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer) are Professors of History at Princeton University. 

Politicians naturally look to the past to inform their actions in the present, but all too often, they draw the wrong lessons from history.

A large portion of the Democratic Party now believes that President Donald Trump has abused, and continues to abuse, the powers of his office, but the party is divided on how best to proceed. Some congressional Democrats worry that any effort to impeach the president will follow the same path as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, leaving the chief executive in office with his powers only strengthened further. Many Democrats, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, lived through that period. As a result, the events of the 1990s deeply inform how they think about the current situation.

Sidney Blumenthal is correct, however, to push back against this line of historical reasoning. Blumenthal, who had a front row seat to the Clinton drama, understands that there are major differences between these two instances. For one, Clinton was much more popular than Trump, having soundly won reelection in 1996 and improving his approval ratings, largely by drawing marked contrasts between himself and the Republican extremists on Capitol Hill. At the same time, the case against Clinton was much flimsier than the one pending against Trump. Clinton was charged with perjuring himself over a lie about his relationship with a White House intern. President Trump is being investigated for obstructing an investigation into a major effort by an overseas government to interfere with the 2016 election, with the president’s campaign receiving most of the assistance. While it is not yet a clear majority, polls show that the public’s support for impeachment is much higher today than it was after the release of the Starr report. It is, instead, comparable to the moment when Democrats launched impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in early 1974.

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