All honest governments look alike; every crooked government is crooked in its own way.
I’m sure Tolstoy would forgive my re-purposing his great line — if he were among the living — but it makes me feel even older than I am to admit that I am watching my third presidential impeachment.
First, I watched the Watergate scandal unravel slowly.
It started with a burglary that made no sense, a break-in at an office that apparently contained nothing worth stealing. Inside Nixonworld, there was a scramble to raise money for the burglars.
Richard Nixon, believing himself still in a bulletproof presidential cocoon, did not find it necessary to turn off the White House taping system.
Judge John J. “Maximum John” Sirica, a Republican appointee, insisted on getting to the bottom of the burglary before sentencing the burglars. The short explanation is that Judge Sirica kept pulling on threads until the whole sordid story unraveled.
Along the way, President Nixon made a lot of law as he attempted to avoid producing evidence and tried to keep anyone from testifying about conversations with the president. A pattern developed where Judge Sirica would order evidence produced and the appeal would start wending its way to the Supreme Court. As the Supreme Court affirmed the discovery order, another one would be on the way up.
Parallel to President Nixon making bad law for future presidents, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was being investigated for old-fashioned corruption. To this day, I have trouble getting my head around the vice president of the United States accepting paper bags containing cash in his federal office, kickbacks from contracts let when he was Baltimore County Executive and Governor of Maryland, apparently on the easy payment plan.
On the cusp of becoming POTUS, Agnew was allowed to plead to one count of tax evasion and resign. Mr. Nixon appointed Gerald Ford to be the new VP.
Articles of impeachment against Richard Milhous Nixon were voted out of committee for abuse of power, contempt of Congress, and obstruction of justice. Before the articles of impeachment were called for a vote on the floor of the House, Mr. Nixon resigned and made his appointee, Gerald Ford, POTUS.
President Ford issued an open-ended pardon to Richard Nixon, so the issue of criminal prosecution became moot. Some historians believe that the Nixon pardon caused Ford to be defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976 after a fraction of a term.
The third POTUS to face impeachment was William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, former governor of Arkansas whose sexual exploits were the stuff of everything from legends to jokes and whose political career had been marred by “bimbo eruptions.”
An Independent Counsel, Kenneth Starr, was appointed to investigate an Arkansas real estate development, Whitewater, that cost Clinton his entire investment when it went broke. Starr’s other writ was the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster.
While Starr concluded that Clinton lost money when the Whitewater development went broke and there was no evidence that Clinton murdered Vince Foster, Starr’s report was expanded to an instance of perjury during a deposition for a lawsuit by Paula Jones, alleging sexual harassment.
Clinton claimed, both under oath and in front of cameras, that he had not had sexual relations with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. According to the common understanding of most people, that was a lie.
The sex Clinton had with Lewinsky was oral. I was teaching at the university level after the Clinton impeachment and I noticed that undergraduates had developed the opinion that oral sex was not as intimate as vaginal sex and a few even took the position that oral sex “did not count.”
The two most salacious details in the Starr Report were that President Clinton had cured a cigar by placing it inside Lewinsky’s vagina and that the POTUS had ejaculated on a blue dress that Ms. Lewinsky had kept — I suppose to remember him by — rather than having it cleaned.
Clinton’s lie was established when the DNA results came back. Clinton went all the way to a DNA test, apparently believing himself still in a bulletproof presidential cocoon. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.
After a trial in the Senate, President Clinton was found not guilty of either charge when senators failed to get the required two-thirds vote.
An organization that has become a force on the left side of national politics was born in the Clinton impeachment, MoveOn.org. The idea was, recognizing Clinton’s guilt, Congress should censure him and “move on.” And that’s pretty much what happened with the finding of “not guilty” for failure to reach two-thirds of the Senate.
As I write, the House of Representatives is on the second day of public hearings on the question of whether Donald John Trump should be impeached. Trump, even more than Nixon or Clinton, believes himself to be in a bulletproof presidential cocoon, in which he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not get convicted.
The Trump impeachment started with the same crime as the Nixon impeachment — a burglary to steal the same files in electronic form that Nixon had stolen on paper. Today’s witness was Marie Louise “Masha” Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she displeased Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. She was then recalled by President Trump.
She answered her subpoena in defiance of the general order that the entire executive branch refuse to cooperate with the congressional investigation, the third State Department employee to do so.
She described her battles against governmental corruption in Ukraine and the arrival of los tres amigos, three persons tasked by Trump through Giuliani to run a foreign policy parallel to the one in the State Department.
They were former governor of Texas and current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland — a hotel empresario who bought his job for a cool million contributed to the Trump Inaugural Committee — and Kurt Volker, special envoy to Ukraine.
One of the issues at the hearing was whether President Trump had obstructed justice beyond his total noncooperation policy. Ambassador Yovanovitch was being examined about how she lost her job when something happened that would get a fiction writer laughed out of town.
President Trump’s Twitter feed lit up with this:
Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.
Somalia was Yovanovitch’s very first overseas assignment, so blaming her for the violent anarchy is a bit much. The general crazed conduct of attacking a witness testifying about being attacked shook loose something that has been exceedingly rare: dissent among Republicans.
The tweet was criticized by Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Liz Cheney (R-WY), and the man who wrote the most salacious report to an impeachment investigation, Kenneth Starr.
Of course, it seems to me Stefanik and Cheney are unlikely to be vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right, which is Trump’s method of keeping office holders in line. Starr does not have to run for office.
I get it. These three people have plenty of right wing credibility, but looked at through the lens of realpolitik, they are only a slight cut above the candidates who could only be frank after they resigned (e.g., Bob Corker, Jeff Flake).
Another bit of news dropped today that has as much to do with Trump’s impeachment as Agnew’s bag money had to do with Nixon’s. Mr. Trump’s oldest advisor and long time GOP trickster Roger Stone became the latest pelt collected by Robert Mueller’s witch hunt.
Mr. Stone was on trial for seven felonies. Yesterday, questions were coming out of the jury room that sounded like at least one count would be a not guilty or a hung jury.
Today, the jury said, “guilty” seven times, guilty of lying to Congress five times, guilty of obstruction of a proceeding, and guilty of witness tampering. It was the witness tampering charge that made Trump’s tweet seem to come from another dimension, one where truth still matters.
While it’s fairly certain that Trump did not intend humor, it was hard to keep a straight face when Trump created another count of witness tampering on the Twitter machine.
We will have to take humor where we find it, because this impeachment will take a long time. Before Trump could even consider taking the route Nixon took, Trump would have to be convinced that he has done something wrong….and the Senate won’t ignore the facts because he wears the R brand.
If I’ve learned anything by taking three trips on the impeachment path, it’s that something is going on in addition to tribal brands. Both Nixon, with an R on his butt, and Clinton, with a D, were interested in using the institutions of U.S.government — the FBI, the CIA, the courts — to save themselves. Neither Nixon nor Clinton was interested in destroying major institutions.
Neither questioned the traditional role of the courts, so both Nixon and Clinton were disposed to obey court orders. I am not convinced that Mr. Trump has thought through the implications of scorched earth tactics because I am not convinced he knows enough about how his government works to tease out the implications of major changes.
There is a big difference between turning government to your purposes and breaking it. If it’s broken, nobody can use it.
I find myself in the odd position of hoping Donald John Trump can find some use for the institutions he has so far wanted to destroy.