So, one thing that people remember about Nixon is that he was impeached.
He. Was. Not.
If you want insight into what’s happening now, forget what you thought you knew about Nixon and impeachment. What’s important to remember here is four days.
Impeachment is similar to filing charges in a manner that requires corresponding future actions. Many people are now aware that the impeachment is different from the Senate trial. Many people are also well aware that it is only upon conviction in the Senate that a President may be removed from office. Many people remember clearly (or clearly remember learning) that Nixon resigned before he could be convicted by the Senate.
What people don’t remember is that before the impeachment, that is before the House files charges, there have to be committee hearings designed to investigate conduct which might be the basis for impeachment. There must be negotiations about how to write up the articles of impeachment (the specific “charges”) so that people know exactly what will be investigated further and what will be alleged by the House during the trial in the Senate (if things get that far). Since impeachable offenses can be any misconduct and are not pre-defined the way the law must pre-define an offense before it can be charged in a criminal court, one can’t simply reference the name of a crime with which a president is being charged, for example, “perjury”. Whether or not a President has lied under oath, articles of impeachment must allege specific behaviors and usually detail specific negative effects of that behavior that justify removal of office (an extreme political consequence, from a constitutional point of view).
All this means that just getting a group of people together to hammer out what the president should be alleged to have done and what consequences will be alleged to have occurred can be a negotiating task as difficult and finalizing the federal budget. The committee hearing gathering information about a President’s behavior and the consequences thereof can take fucking months. A year wouldn’t be outrageous.
But during all this time that a committee is meeting, of necessity more and more bad behaviors and bad consequences are coming to light. This can make a President’s position and power politically untenable even before it can be constitutionally ended. The process of just detailing the charges is often far too slow.
As a result, what is much more likely to happen is what happened in the Nixon case. Informal investigations seeking general information about wrongdoing that may or may not have occurred began in the fall of 1973, just before Halloween. These investigations were transformed by a formal announcement that House members were investigating potentially impeachable offenses in February of 1974. In April 1974 the public became generally aware that tapes existed, but not what was on them. The Nixon administration fought release of the tapes and the transcripts for months.
Then in August the Nixon White House itself released a transcript that they knew (because of unfavorable Supreme Court opinion) would inevitably become public. It was bad. They knew it was bad. But they thought they could spin it. After all, they’d been fighting to hold on to power for most of a year, and they hadn’t been beaten yet, had they?
But no. This particular transcript soon acquired the nickname “The Smoking Gun”. From its release on 5 August to Nixon’s resignation on 9 August took four days.
There simply wasn’t time to rewrite the committee’s draft articles of impeachment to include the information about this newly revealed conduct. There was simply wasn’t time to vote the articles out of committee with a recommendation of consideration on the House floor. There sure as hell wasn’t time to bring finalized articles to the floor and vote on them.
Nixon was never impeached. He was never “indicted”, to use the frequent metaphor. It’s not just that the trial was never held, it’s that the House simply couldn’t move fast enough for charges even to be laid.
We can talk and question and wonder about what comes next, but whatever comes, it is almost certain to be nothing like the full process imagined by the constitution. I could give you a history of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, but it wouldn’t help us imagine more accurately what is likely to occur here. What happened with Nixon was fighting and scrapping and legal wrangling and defiance of oversight and outraged statements to the press … and then complete collapse.
The particular memo released by the White House detailing the call between Trump and Zelenskyy might not be the equivalent of the Nixonian Smoking Gun. Maybe the countdown has yet to begin. But when it comes, it won’t be a drawn out process with committee hearings over months, floor procedures taking days, and a Senate trial scheduled out over weeks. When it comes, it will come as a transformation. Like a sinkhole where support has been eroded invisibly over a long time, the collapse will be barely slow enough for us to even recognize what we’re seeing, much less predict what will play out of the next month or week or day or even hour. There will be curious cracks and hours later the ground will be obviously unstable and hours later there will be a hole and hours after that a crater of truly unanticipated size.
When we finally see it happen, it will happen just slowly enough for us to exclaim, “Everything is happening so fast!”
So don’t expect House impeachment. Don’t expect a Senate trial. Expect the unexpected. And when it begins, you won’t know it’s begun. The clock’s countdown will be visible only in retrospect. But when you do look back at what happened, don’t think that clock was measuring a process of months. Don’t think it was measuring from the time of his inauguration or from the moment of a first hearing or from some declaration by Pelosi or anyone else that things have now become “serious” or even “official”. The clock won’t start with any event that can be predicted. But if you have to guess at the delay between the last moment of predictability to the last moment of Trump’s presidency, set the over/under at four days.