Washington Wednesday: Historical impeachment perspective

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 11th of December, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday. Today, the impeachment inquiry.

REICHARD: House Democrats are preparing for a historic vote next week. This will be only the fourth time in U.S. history that the House has considered removing a president from office. 

The first impeachment inquiry took place in 1868. House lawmakers convicted President Andrew Johnson of violating the Tenure of Office Act. The Senate acquitted him.

EICHER: In 1973, the House convened the second-ever round of presidential impeachment hearings. That time, against Richard Nixon. It dragged on for nearly a year. Nixon maintained support from fellow Republicans throughout much of the proceedings. 

But as evidence of his role in the Watergate scandal became public, most of the president’s political allies abandoned him. Facing widespread, bipartisan opposition, Nixon resigned before lawmakers could vote.

REICHARD: The third impeachment inquiry began in 1998. That’s when Republicans accused President Bill Clinton of lying under oath and obstruction of justice. The GOP-controlled House approved two articles of impeachment by narrow margins. 

Republicans also held a slim majority in the Senate. But they didn’t have the 67 votes they needed to convict and remove Bill Clinton from office. So he joined Andrew Johnson on the impeached presidents list, although neither had to leave office.

EICHER: Paul McNulty had a front-row seat to the Clinton impeachment proceedings as chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. He went on to work as a deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush and now serves as president of Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

Paul McNulty joins us now to talk about the current impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Good morning!

PAUL MCNULTY, GUEST: Good morning. Nice talking to you.

EICHER: Let’s start with your thoughts on the impeachment hearings so far. What’s stood out to you?

MCNULTY: Well, I think at the very top of that list would be the partisan divide and the toxicity of the environment. The confrontation that is existing. The lack of any cooperation. And the view of the Democrats that the bipartisan support that we saw—to some extent—back in the Nixon impeachment and which was a problem for the Republicans not to have in the Clinton impeachment, is not important to them in this go round. 

That has actually surprised me because they are seen in the public reaction just exactly what we could have predicted when you try to go through an impeachment process without some meaningful bipartisan support.

EICHER: Do you feel like there’s any there there to this at all? 

MCNULTY: Well, in the substance of it, I think what’s problematic for the Democrats is two things. Number one, the nature of the violation itself. And number two, the evidence supporting the violation. 

So, with regard to the violation itself, it’s something that is going to strike a lot of people in the public as not rising to the level of egregiousness that an impeachable offense would appear to require. And that’s why there is a clear divide in public opinion about whether or not the impeachment process should proceed. 

The nature of the offense is one where you’re talking about a phone conversation where the language being used can be interpreted in some different ways. The evidence relating to the quid pro quo—which goes to my second point—has some holes in its, or at least some weaknesses, to it. 

You’ve got a lot of commentary or a lot of statements that are not first-hand knowledge but hearsay and so forth. And as the law professor from last week described, it’s a thin case in relation to that evidence and that creates a very significant problem.

EICHER: You’re talking about the law professor the Republicans called from George Washington Law School. That was Jonathan Turley.

MCNULTY: That’s right. And Jon Turley’s not a Republican himself. He said he didn’t even support President Trump. I’ve known him for a long period of time, and he has a reputation for being a very fair-minded, straight-shooter type of guy. 

And so he was providing, I thought, really insightful commentary about what is necessary, the magnitude of an offense that needs to be present in order for the case to kind of garner larger public support and bring in more bipartisan congressional support to the process. And he was pointing out something that I think is a rather clear conclusion at this point.

EICHER: We hear a lot about how this proceeding highlights the deep partisan divisions in our country. You used the term toxic. 

But I’m wondering are they really are more toxic or more partisan than the last time we went through this, during the Clinton administration? You were there. So, tell us what you remember and how it contrasts with what you’re seeing today.

MCNULTY: Sure. Well, I was there, and Henry Hyde was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I was the chief counsel of the Judiciary Committee and the spokesperson for the impeachment process. So I was right in the middle of that debate every day. 

And even though there was a clear divide—and it went down pretty much along party line, although there were some Democrats who did support the articles of impeachment when they came to the House floor—the tone of the disagreement was very different. And that’s because Henry Hyde set a very fair and balanced tone as the chair. 

And that meant that there could be, actually, more of a discussion about the issues and the merits about whether it should go forward or not. And, again, the Republicans learned through that process that without Democrat support, it was not something that was going to, you know, pull the American people in in such a way that would bring about, eventually, the removal of the president from office. 

EICHER: We’re in the news business, we’re not the prediction business. But it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to believe that it’s a bit of a foregone conclusion. The House is going to vote for impeachment, probably next week. And absent some dramatic changes, the Senate will probably acquit. So what’s the takeaway from all of this?

MCNULTY: Well, I think we’re going to have to spend some time really thinking about that. I think the Democrats are going to hope that they’ve been able to vindicate their position and stir up their political base as they go into the election year because they’ve followed through on something that they said they were going to do. 

I think they will have turned off a lot of independents in the process and they’ll hope that those independents don’t remember that as much by the time we get to November.

But on the Senate side, one of the things that’s particularly intriguing right now is what this Senate proceeding will look like, how long it will last, what witnesses will be called. 

In ‘98, as you may remember, we were dealing with a very limited amount of Senate action. So, it wasn’t really a Senate trial. Chief Justice Rehnquist presided, but instead it was a series of just statements and presentations that were made on the Senate floor. But witnesses were not called and it wasn’t something similar to, say, the 1868 version or ‘67 version of what Andrew Johnson went through. 

So, that’s I think the most interesting issue right now as to whether or not that trial will actually, in a sense, backfire on the Democrats because of the issues that might come forward and the type of testimony that would be heard, the length of the proceedings, the disrupting effect it might have with regard to the primaries, and other things that could come out of that.

EICHER: Thinking through how the Senate might approach this, if the Senate does put on a full-blown trial, do you think that’s an indicator that the Republicans feel like they can actually turn this to their benefit politically?

MCNULTY: I think there’s some thinking along those lines. I think that’s beginning to reveal itself more and more in the last couple of weeks that there may even be an opportunity and there may be some regrets on the Democrat side that they’ve created that opportunity. 

So let’s specifically look at what happened with regard to the Judiciary Committee presentation on the evidence where the Republican counsel spent time talking about Hunter Biden and the contract he had in Ukraine and the potential conflict of interest that might have been involved with his father as vice president. Well, that issue could receive more attention in a Senate trial right at the very same time that Joe Biden is trying to get the nomination. 

So, yeah, I do think that there is a growing sense that some twists and turns are going to emerge here that might be politically harmful for Democrats and in particular Joe Biden.

EICHER: Paul McNulty is a former deputy U.S. Attorney General and current president of Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Mr. McNulty, thank you so much for joining us today.

MCNULTY: My pleasure. Thank you.

(Photo/History) Clinton impeachment trial

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