Nixon and the Four Days

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.

Four. Days.

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.

Four. Days. 

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.



  1. brucegee1962 says

    It’s hard to make generalizations with a sample size of one. I think that a lot of what happened with Nixon had to do with his specific mental state, which was probably more prone towards periods of self-doubt and depression than Trump’s narcissism. Trump seems to have a layer of self-assurance, boosted by his Twitter army, that makes him impervious to criticism and advice. Also, not only does he care nothing for the good of the country, but he also has no loyalty to his own party or followers.

    All of which is to say, I would be very surprised if this does NOT end up as a Senate vote. Mitch Mcconnell and all of the Senate GOP could come shuffling into the Oval Office on their knees, begging him to resign so they don’t have to make this vote, and he would just laugh.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Another point is consultant Mike Murphy’s claim that 30 Senate Republicans would vote against Trump if there was a secret ballot — that is, if they could do so without political consequences. So they may be wrestling between their consciences and political expediency, and at least a few of them may take a principled stand.

    There’s also the unspoken element that there’s a wing of the party (particularly the evangelicals) who would love Pence to be president and have always wished Trump would just go away. They’d love nothing better than to see him fall to the floor in the Senate, as long as they aren’t seen as the ones holding the bloody dagger.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    So… Trump will admit defeat, and slink off in shame?

    I want some of what you’re smoking…

  4. DonDueed says

    What I remember as the turning point of the Nixon saga was the forced resignation of Vice President Agnew. When that occurred, I felt that it was the harbinger of a Nixon resignation, something that had to be done to clear the road since no one could stomach the idea of Mr. Corruption himself taking the oval office.

    Of course, I may have been mistaken about that, and Agnew’s was a completely independent scandal. But the reading above is how it seemed to me at the time.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … one thing that people remember about Nixon is that he was impeached.

    A few among those of us watching at the time remember otherwise*, but thanks for the reminder of the whippersnapper version.

    *For me, every Nixon-resignation-anniversary remembrance translates to “Melinda’s birthday party” – lots of shouting and celebration…

    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.

    Excellent point. Trump makes a point of unpredictability, and has the erraticness to pull it off over and over.

    sonofrojblake @ # 3: …Trump will admit defeat, and slink off in shame?

    No, if still on his feet he will strut off in defiance, tweeting maniacally from his tower about “Witch hunts!”, working $cams, and amplifying chaos wherever he can. Also unlike Nixon, he will explicitly dictate the terms of his blanket pardon to his veep (or, if exceptionally subtle [i.e, taking Wm Barr’s advice], just tell Pence to ask Wm Barr what to do).

    DonDueed @ # 5: … the forced resignation of Vice President Agnew. When that occurred, I felt that it was the harbinger of a Nixon resignation…

    Which happened while I was at work, and managed to irk my boss by repeating, “One down, one to go!”

    I spent some of today worrying about a prospective Pelosi plan of rushing impeachment through just on Ukraine-gate and leaving all the other skeletons rotting in their closets. That would protect Pelosi’s patrons, evidently a higher priority for her than the good of either nation or party, and put Pence in the best possible position for 2020.

    You may/should have seen Heather Digby Parton’s recent So it begins: Impeachment at last — but will the Democrats screw it up?. For once, I thought a headline was too short, and mentally inserted a “How ” after the “but”…

    Dragging out the investigations and bringing all the swamp muck into the spotlight at least through both parties’ conventions next year would do most good for the Democrats and for the country, so we can expect both to insist on something, anything, else.

  6. consciousness razor says

    When we finally see it happen, it will happen just slowly enough for us to exclaim, “Everything is happening so fast!”

    Which may be, but it will come after an inordinate amount of time asking myself “why the fuck is all of this happening so slowly?”
    One thing that might be sort of different this time is that a lot of congressional Democrats are real pros at dragging their feet. If one could somehow turn four days into four months, Pelosi and Schumer would be the ones to pull it off.

    Expect the unexpected.

    I also intend to unexpect the expected, just to be safe.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Trump seems to have a layer of self-assurance, boosted by his Twitter army, that makes him impervious to criticism and advice.

    I would say “façade” rather than “layer”. Trump is also notoriously thin-skinned. So my guess is that those two attributes combine to make him made very anxious by criticism, but also deeply determined to deal with the anxiety by ignoring/deflecting the criticism.

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