Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment of a four-part series by renowned public policy scholar Michael Christensen placing the impeachment of Donald Trump into historical context. Part 4 provides observations and outlines what history teaches about the Trump impeachment. (See parts one, two and three).
Outcomes & Observations from U.S. Impeachment History
Historians agree that an angry Republican majority in both Houses simply wanted Johnson out of their way so they could proceed with reconstruction under their terms and not the president’s.
President Johnson survived because 10 Republican senators, some at great risk to their careers, found the president not-guilty. They just found the charges and process far too political and partisan and a serious threat to the balance of power between the three branches of government. If there ever was an impeachment case that was purely political, this was it.
President Nixon resigned before the House of Representatives could vote on the articles of impeachment because he knew impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate were all but certain. Historians broadly agree that Nixon’s actions were against the law and done to hide a number of illegal activities besides the Watergate break-in. These activities were designed to undermine his Democratic opponents in the 1972 presidential election and to insure his second presidential victory. Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment were buoyed by the plummeting poll numbers Nixon experienced. Americans supporting impeachment grew from 19 percent in May 1973 to 57 percent in August 1974. Job approval ratings fell from 70 percent in February 1973 to 24 percent in August 1974.
Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted because all 45 Democratic senators voted not guilty and enough Republican senators defying their party did the same. Republican leadership lost 10 senators on Article I, and 5 senators on Article II. The majority of Americans never supported Clinton’s impeachment and his job approval rating remained high, making it difficult for senators to vote for conviction in many swing states. Many Americans just believed that a president’s personal life, though unsavory, did not justify removal from office.
Importance of Public Opinion and the Minority Party
Public opinion played a strong role in all three impeachment cases. Johnson was very unpopular in the Republican North which dominated congress at the time. This made it easy for Republicans to vote for impeachment and removal. Still, enough Republicans courageously broke with their party to prevent removal. Nixon’s popularity fell from 68% to 25% during the impeachment inquiry which gave Republicans cover if they chose to vote for impeachment. The only impeachment process that resulted in a president leaving office was that of President Nixon’s. Essential to the resignation of Nixon was that enough Republicans indicated they were willing to break with their party and vote for impeachment and conviction along with the majority. Bill Clinton’s strong and steady approval ratings during the entire impeachment process helped enough Republicans to oppose conviction and removal with some safety.
What Does History Tell Us about a Possible Trump Impeachment?
The House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump December 18, 2019. Article 1 accused the president of Abuse of Power. The vote: 230-197, two Democrats joined Republicans and voted no. Article 2 accused him of Obstruction of Congress. The vote: 229-198, three Democrats joined Republicans and voted no.
As it now stands, it is very unlikely the Senate will convict and remove President Trump from office. After weeks of delay, the House sent the articles of impeachment over to the Senate. The trial started January 16, 2020.
Public Opinion is Split
President Trump’s popularity has been very low during his entire presidency – in the low 40 percent range. However, his support has not gone down to any significant degree during the impeachment inquiry. In other words, his base is holding firm. The percent of Americans wanting impeachment and removal never exceeded 50 percent until just recently when CCN posted a poll showing 51 percent approving removal. This announcement seems to have had no effect on how the Republican leadership in the Senate is so far proceeding. However, approximately 77% of Americans want the Senate to have a fair trial with witnesses.
If polls don’t show a significant reduction in Trump’s popularity or increased support for impeachment, it is highly unlikely enough Republicans will defy their party and join the Democrats to vote for conviction and removal. Twenty Republicans would need to vote for conviction along with the 47 Democrats in order for Trump to be removed, a very long shot in today’s landscape.
The biggest difference between the Trump Impeachment and the others
There are two big differences between the impeachment of President Trump and those of Richard Nixon and Clinton. First, the impeachment of President Trump will be the first impeachment in which Congress is divided. In the Johnson and Clinton cases, the Republican Party controlled both Houses. In the Nixon case, the Democrat Party controlled both Houses. Today the House is controlled by the Democrats and the Senate by Republicans. This dynamic makes the Trump impeachment case much different. Still, public opinion and party loyalty will play important roles.
On the second point, I am not including the Johnson impeachment because times were so different then regarding the single biggest influencer of public opinion – the media. So let’s look at the Nixon and Bill Clinton cases. In Nixon’s case, there were only three television channels bringing Americans the news and the newspapers were substantively telling a similar story. This allowed Americans to see the facts within a small and narrow left-right political range. The facts of these cases were established and agreed upon by the major media outlets. Thus the arguments and differences of opinion centered on what’s right and wrong, not the premises of the case. Though the media had broadened some by the time Clinton became president, the situation was not dramatically different than Nixon’s.
Today, the media is broad and diverse and the story you hear can be dramatically different depending on which media outlet one chooses. Conservative Americans choose conservative media channels, newspapers and social media outlets. Liberals just the opposite. Independents are not sure where to go. This situation allows Trump to keep his base loyal because they are hearing the story from a completely different perspective than other broadcasters. It surprises no one to know that the impeachment story is told differently on CNN than on Fox. When Americans cannot even agree on the facts from which to value right and wrong, it creates serious problems for resolving issues – political, social or economic. In the Nixon case, Americans had to decide if what he did was right or wrong and worthy of removal from office. They decided it was. Seeing where the public and congress stood, he resigned.
In Clinton’s case Americans had to decide if Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and lying about it was sufficiently wrong to remove him from office. They decided that as disgusting as the affair was, it did not merit impeachment. The Senate, seeing where the public stood, chose not to remove him from office.
In the Trump impeachment, Americans are not debating the morality or legality of what Trump did as much as they are arguing over whether he did anything at all. Democrats are forcefully stating that Trump asked a leader of a foreign country to help him find dirt on a top political rival and held up critical military aid as leverage to get what he wanted. In this, the shadows of President Nixon’s “Plumbers” comes to mind. Republicans argue that the evidence for this “shake-down” is circumstantial at best – a shadow of Clinton’s defense team arguments. In other words, there is nothing to impeach him for. As long as the debate over the impeachment of Trump is focused on what the facts are, it is difficult for Americans to coalesce around a decision as whether to remove him or not. This gives Republican senators little incentive to break with their party. The Gallop poll below shows how low but stable support for Trump is.
Without public opinion shifting more negatively, Trump has little to fear of the Senate getting to the two-thirds majority required to convict and remove. With a Senate at 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, 20 Republicans would need to bolt from their party and vote with the Democrats – currently an unimaginable scenario. However, if something happens to move public opinion to be more supportive of removal (more testimonies perhaps), Republican senators will take note.
Dr. Michael Christensen is the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Scholar in Residence. Dr. Christensen has spent over 35 years in the public policy arena. He served as Governor Norm Bangerter’s deputy director of the Office of Planning and Budget and State Planning Coordinator. He then directed the Utah Foundation, a private-public policy think tank, for nine years authoring over 100 papers. He was an editor and/or co-author of two books: “State and Local Government in Utah” and “Financing Government in Utah.” From 2000 until his retirement in 2017, he worked for the Utah Legislature as director of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. He holds bachelors and masters degrees from Utah State University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah.