Impeachment: Then And Now

May 2, 2019
Originally published on May 2, 2019 7:26 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Mueller report details possible obstruction of justice on the part of the president, as we just heard, and the Trump administration's refusal to cooperate with other congressional investigations. All of that is fueling a debate among Democrats. Should they open impeachment hearings against the president? NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson talked to several veterans of the last impeachment fight about what is at stake.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Impeachment is Congress's ultimate weapon.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The yays are 228. The nays are 206. Article one is adopted...

CHARLES GIBSON: President Clinton has been impeached. The House of Representatives today..

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: No other way to say it - this is one of the most momentous days in America's history.

LIASSON: Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson are the only two American presidents that have been impeached. Richard Nixon resigned just before an impeachment vote. But no president has ever been impeached by the House and then removed by the Senate. Like any other political decision, impeachment has potential risks and rewards. Right now Democrat Joe Lockhart thinks it's a bad idea.

JOE LOCKHART: All Democrats want to hold the president accountable. I am totally with that. I am also with Democrats emotionally on wanting to punish him. But I think in our zeal to punish him, we may end up punishing ourselves. I think there is a significant factor for the American voters that if he is acquitted in the Senate, it makes him more likely to be reelected.

LIASSON: Lockhart's been through an impeachment process as White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House but not removed from office by the Senate.

LOCKHART: My view is informed by 1998 in the sense that the public wants the ultimate final say. And the final say is at the ballot box. And they're very suspect of politicians making judgments over other politicians and trying to remove them from office.

LIASSON: Back in 1998, Bill Clinton's approval ratings soared to 73 percent the day of the impeachment vote. And Republican strategist Rick Tyler remembers that after the Senate failed to convict, his party was punished by the voters in the next midterm elections.

RICK TYLER: The country had enough of the Republicans. And they elected six additional members of the House from the Democratic Party. Now, that's unusual because the party in power in the White House generally loses about an average of a dozen or so seats, and so it was a huge backlash. There's no other way to look at it - is the Republicans overreached, and the American people corrected them on that.

LIASSON: But that history lesson is not a clear guide for every Democrat today.

JEN PALMIERI: Democrats in Congress are right to look at the past for lessons. But I think that you can get too wrapped up in concerns about short-term political consequences and learn the wrong lessons from the past.

LIASSON: That's Jen Palmieri, who was deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House.

PALMIERI: Congress needs to just do their job. It's right there in the Constitution. They're there to be a check on the president. And this is a time where you need to take the action that you think needs to be taken based off of the oath you swore to uphold.

LIASSON: Palmieri is more focused on the long-term consequences of not impeaching.

PALMIERI: If the Democrats just walked away at this moment, it would be giving the president a clear pass, saying what he had done was fine and of more concern - setting the standard that other presidents could do the same.

LIASSON: As Democrats wrestle with these competing impulses, the man who led the Clinton impeachment, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has his own view of history.

NEWT GINGRICH: If I were doing it over, I would have moved much more slowly. And I would have watched whether or not the American people agreed.

LIASSON: Moving slowly and waiting to see if you can win the argument with the American people is exactly what the current Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has decided to do.

GINGRICH: I think Nancy Pelosi's got this about right and probably a little more right than I did.

LIASSON: Pelosi hasn't completely ruled out impeachment, but she has said impeachment won't work unless there's bipartisan support for it inside and outside Congress. Gingrich agrees.

GINGRICH: If you're going to take on the president and, in effect, repudiate 63 million Americans, you had better have a case that splits that into at least 30 or 40 million of those Americans deciding you're right.

LIASSON: Right now that's not the case. No poll shows a majority or even a plurality of Americans favoring impeachment. And today the political stakes for impeachment are even higher than in 1998. Back then, Bill Clinton had already been reelected. Today Donald Trump is standing for a second term. The Democrats' debate over impeachment is far from settled. Congress continues to investigate, asking for the full, unredacted Mueller report. Many Democrats also believe the Trump administration is obstructing Congress by its across-the-board refusal to provide witnesses or documents to congressional committees. Democrats know that, currently, the country is not in favor of impeachment, but they're watching carefully to see if that changes.

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LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.