On 8 August 1974, Richard Nixon solemnly addressed the American people to announce that he was resigning. He remains the only US president to do so – and he did it under the threat of impeachment.
On 24 September 2019, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, announced that multiple committees would investigate whether President Donald Trump should be impeached. Their main focus would be the president’s telephone conversation on 25 July with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate whether former US vice-president Joe Biden – widely tipped to be Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2020 election – pushed for the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor scrutinising the business activities of his son, Hunter Biden. The call was made after the US had suspended $391 million in military aid to Ukraine; some have taken this as an implication that this funding might be reactivated if Zelensky could do Trump a “favor”.
That call was revealed when an intelligence officer formally complained that the president was misusing his position. This ‘whistle-blower’ alerted the relevant authorities, but the report was not automatically passed to the relevant Congressional oversight committees by the acting director of national intelligence, as required by US law.
Any attempt to exert such leverage to obtain ‘dirt’ on the Bidens might be viewed as an abuse of power. Such was the charge 45 years ago, in the second of the three articles of impeachment that were drafted against Richard Nixon in 1974. The first was obstruction of justice, based on his efforts to impede the now-infamous Watergate inquiry; the third was contempt of Congress, a related charge arising from his repeated refusal to hand over subpoenaed documents. Given the intemperate character of recent exchanges between Trump and his congressional critics, the House might feasibly draft three similar articles against him – and there are parallels to be found in the cases.
Delaying the whistle-blower’s report, and moving the phone-call records and associated documents to a different server with different access codes in the days after the complaint, looks like an orchestrated attempt to obstruct justice. Indeed, those same actions prompted the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations to seek a federal injunction because they fear the Trump administration cannot be trusted to keep accurate records.
It is against the law to solicit a foreign entity to interfere in a US election, and for any candidate to accept contributions of ‘value’ of any kind from foreign entities; by pressing Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son, the president could be said to be seeking to extract a contribution of value to his re-election bid. Trump then publicly called for China to investigate Hunter Biden, and implied that his tariff policy might change if it did, which would also seem to be an invitation to break this law. He also labelled his Congressional critics “traitors”, and the whistle-blower a “spy” who should be exposed and possibly executed. Trump has resisted Congressional demands to interview officials such as secretary of state Mike Pompeo. All of this could be read as constituting contempt of Congress.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, former US ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovich revealed that President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was behind efforts to compel the Ukrainian authorities to announce a public investigation into corruption at Burisma, the energy company with which Hunter Biden was associated.
At the same time, she revealed that she clashed with Giuliani after he supported a visa application from Viktor Shokin, who was barred from the US due to “known corrupt activity”. Shokin had been a controversial prosecutor general of Ukraine, whose conduct in office had prompted the Obama administration to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless he was removed. Giuliani and others have stressed Vice President Joe Biden’s role in Shokin’s removal.
Aiding Giuliani’s efforts to circumvent ambassador Yovanovich and find ‘dirt’ on the Bidens were Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. On 9 October, Parnas and Fruman were arrested at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, near Washington, DC, and charged with conspiring to engage in election fraud by funnelling monies from foreign entities to federal candidates. Fiona Hill, Trump’s adviser on Russia and Europe and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council, also told the House committee that then-National Security adviser John Bolton had warned staff to steer clear of Giuliani, likening him to a “hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up”.
Other diplomats have confirmed that the White House used the suspension of Congressionally approved aid to induce the Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Transcripts of House testimony have been released and, with public hearings scheduled to begin, the Nixon parallel of televised hearings steadily fostering public mistrust is becoming more relevant.
Impeachment is usually a protracted process that unfolds in several stages. First, the various committees investigate and produce reports that recommend articles of impeachment; second, the House votes on those articles; if passed, the president is impeached; finally, the Senate holds a trial to decide if the president should be removed from office. As was evident in the Watergate proceedings, gathering evidence takes time. Each investigating committee will make recommendations on which the House will vote, and only then might the Senate hold an impeachment trial. Meanwhile, the clock continues to count down to the US election in November 2020.
Successful impeachment resulting in the removal of a president is unprecedented. Trump and his supporters may be heartened by the fact that the last impeachment, that of Bill Clinton in 1998, ended in acquittal – as did the first, that of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Impeachment requires not a simple majority, but instead for two-thirds of all senators to back a guilty verdict – today, that would be 67 out of 100 senators. Currently, the Republicans hold 53 Senate seats, so Trump is strongly protected by party unity, as was Clinton in 1998.
But is Trump following a Nixon-esque path, culminating in resignation rather than impeachment? The parallels between the two cases begin with electoral interference.
On the night of 16–17 June 1972, five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee HQ in the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. Investigators linked the burglars to Nixon’s re-election campaign via the Committee to Re-elect the President, or CRP – an organisation popularly known by the acronym ‘Creep’, a more well-chosen nickname given the surreptitious activities in which it engaged.
The men had broken into the complex to photograph documents and plant bugs in order to provide Nixon’s team with information about the Democratic committee’s plans – tactics for finding negative information on an electoral opponent, assumed to be part of normal political practice in 1972. Today, rather than bugging, such tactics might involve hacking into computers. There is, though, no evidence, as has been suggested is the case with Trump, that Nixon sought foreign help.
Thanks partly to the 1976 film All the President’s Men, the Washington Post investigation that contributed to Nixon’s resignation has been portrayed as important reporting that benefited the nation and its government. Yet when Americans went to the polls in November 1972, Watergate was grabbing few newspaper headlines, and the administration’s preferred line that the stories were partisan attacks by a liberal-biased media resonated widely.
One key difference between the two cases is that Nixon’s 1972 landslide win had not been matched by Republican victories in Congress. The Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate in 1973, and so could launch investigations. Today there is a conservative majority on the Supreme Court and, as noted earlier, a Republican majority in the Senate, which may protect Trump.
Protesters gather outside the White House in 1974. By then, widely televised Watergate hearings from the previous summer had eroded public trust. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Nixon was also undone because some close aides, such as White House counsel John Dean, were ready to expose his involvement in hope of leniency when investigated for their own actions. Judging by events during investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump may also discover that some staff could decide to help the current impeachment enquiry.
A separate scandal that led to the resignation in October 1973 of Nixon’s vice-president Spiro T Agnew increased the likelihood of Nixon’s impeachment. Few had regarded Agnew as presidential material, so his resignation made Nixon’s own removal more palatable, especially when moderate Republican and conservative Democratic opinion was reassured by the selection of House minority leader Gerald Ford as vice president. Some US commentators have suggested that politicians considering impeaching Trump are deterred by the prospect of Vice-President Mike Pence succeeding him.
The consensus is that it was not the break-in that brought down Nixon, but the discovery of his systematic attempt to cover up his administration’s involvement and to hamper the investigation and prosecution of those involved. Contrary to his oath of office, he obstructed justice. The Watergate scandal took a long time to build and was scarcely visible when Nixon achieved a crushing victory over Democrat George McGovern in November 1972.
Ultimately, Nixon’s doom was sealed by his taping of conversations in the White House. When the existence of these tapes became known, both the Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate and the Senate investigative committee demanded their release. Nixon refused, citing the tradition of executive privilege as well as the interests of national security.
Significantly, by the summer of 1973, the widely televised Watergate hearings had eroded public trust. Nixon tried to satisfy demands for the tapes by releasing a selection, but even these documents tarnished his reputation, revealing a bitter man obsessed with fighting his ‘enemies’, and there were also suspicious gaps in the record. When Congress secured the full tapes after a Supreme Court decision limited executive privilege, they included the so-called ‘smoking gun’ tape of 23 June 1973, a recording that featured Nixon and key aide HR Haldeman discussing using the CIA to squash the investigation on spurious national security grounds.
Trump’s team, in choosing to release the transcript of the president’s conversation with Zelensky, may have recalled Nixon’s mistake of refusing to disclose information. Yet they released only an unverified transcript. It also emerged that the president ordered other senior figures to confer with foreign leaders about his domestic opponents, and those figures are not protected from prosecution as a president is. Some Republicans have condemned these actions by Trump’s cadre, and some polls now suggest that a majority of Americans favour impeachment. The Nixon parallel is there: when the tapes confirmed his direct involvement in the cover-up, many Republican leaders realised that he had lied to them; this, plus his tumbling approval ratings, forged a fragile bipartisan coalition that would not only approve articles of impeachment, but potentially ensure the Senate votes to carry at least one of them. Senior party figures, effectively, told Nixon to go.
The investigation into Trump’s action has begun, and more evidence is appearing. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman – who, as a Ukraine expert within the National Security Council, listened in on Trump’s phone call with Zelensky – has testified that the document released by the White House was not a verbatim transcript. He recalls Trump referring directly to former Vice-President Biden, and that Zelensky referred directly to Burisma. Not only does this provide evidence that the two leaders were conscious that this was a bargaining conversation in which, in the phrase of the moment, a ‘quid pro quo’ was on the table, but it also suggests that the released document is itself an attempted cover-up despite its appearance of transparency.
The most pointed parallel will arise if Trump’s supporters and independents lose faith in him, as Nixon’s backers faltered in the summer of 1974 – the point at which Nixon knew the game was up. So watch the Republican senators in the coming weeks. Some have signalled unhappiness with Trump’s controversial withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, while others have privately registered concern that recent Republican defeats in local elections in states such as Kentucky suggest that the popular mood is turning hostile to Republican incumbents. Both issues tend to undercut loyalty to the president.
But as Mark Twain reputedly said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The parallels run only so far. This saga is unfolding not, as was the case with Nixon, in the aftermath of a victory, but in the run-up to a fresh election. Trump is a different president in a different time, with a different Republican Party, and so it is entirely possible that this time the story will end differently. When it does, and however it finishes, the court of history awaits.
Peter Ling is professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham
This article was last revised on 14 November 2019 and is taken from issue 19 of BBC World Histories magazine, on sale now.