What Was Truly Unprecedented in This Week’s Impeachment Hearings?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

It’s easy to call an impeachment “historic,” but what kind of history did we really see this week? Most of us couldn’t answer that in real time, but POLITICO Magazine tracked down the tiny handful of Americans who can: the historians and legal analysts who specialize in the rare, high-stakes process of impeachment itself.

This week we invited a group of them to watch the congressional hearings with an eye to what actually made history. They saw quite a bit of it unfold in the hearings on President Donald Trump’s conduct around Ukraine and the conduct of the Congress looking into it.

First, one historian noted the way we consumed the news this week was unprecedented: Unlike during any previous impeachment, we were all able to follow along with the inquiry as it unfolded and witnesses revealed new information. Second, never before, two of the experts pointed out, has an impeachment turned directly on matters of national security. By any normal standard, that should strip the domestic politics out of the proceedings—except, as another historian pointed out, the Republicans in Congress have chosen to act as his legal defense rather than as serious fact-finders about his conduct, which is another historical outlier.

During Friday’s testimony, another piece of history got made: The president, in real time, weighed in with a tweet about the witness while she was being questioned, a move that not only would have been impossible in any previous impeachment process but is very inadvisable because it has the appearance of witness intimidation—as the committee chairman pointed out.

So what will future history books say about the first time a president used Twitter to dig himself deeper into a hole during his own impeachment hearings? We don’t know yet, but it’s clear from historians' answers that we are in the midst of proceedings as singular and disruptive as the president who keeps finding ways to surprise all of us. Every impeachment is a new beast, and as only the fourth impeachment of a U.S. president to hit this point in 230 years, it’s certain we’ll see far more made soon. Here’s what we’ve seen so far:

Republicans on the House Intel Committee are not Trump’s defense lawyers

Frank O. Bowman III is a constitutional law professor and the author of High Crimes & Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.

The most unprecedented thing about these hearings was brought home to me by a journalist who, during a break in the Friday testimony of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, asked me, “How do you expect Congressman [Devin] Nunes to go after her when the hearing resumes?”

If this question seems natural to you, it shouldn’t. Because it assumed, as a matter of course, that the job of the ranking minority member of a House committee investigating impeachable conduct by the president was to attack the credibility of a lifelong public servant and undercut her account of the facts to exonerate the president. The question assumed that Nunes—and indeed all the Republicans on the committee—are merely Donald Trump’s defense lawyers. But they’re not. Or at least neither the Constitution nor 230 years of American history support the notion that they should be.

Rather, the House Intelligence Committee—and all its members—represents both the public at large and the legislative branch, which is co-equal with the presidency, and is charged by the Constitution with monitoring the conduct of the president, checking him when required and impeaching him as a last resort. This is not to suggest that impeachment of a president is ever a dispassionately apolitical affair. Those of the president’s faction will always look skeptically on efforts to remove the executive branch leader of their political “team.” Alexander Hamilton predicted this in his essay Federalist 65. And any reasonable appreciation of human nature would predict the same thing.

But a striking fact about the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton impeachments is the degree to which legislators of both parties generally demonstrated a commendable dedication to determining the facts and thereafter to arguing reasonable inferences from whatever facts emerged.

For example, in both the Nixon and Clinton cases, the parties were united in their resolution that the president must provide relevant evidence when requested by Congress in the impeachment inquiry. It is inconceivable that, in either case, the president’s party would have refused to join requests for White House witnesses or documents and then argue that the case against the president could not be proved because of the absence of the very witnesses or documents the president withheld. Yet that is precisely the position the Republicans have assumed in the Trump hearings, arguing, for instance, that the whistleblower’s complaints amount to hearsay.

Similarly, in both the Nixon and Clinton inquiries, even those of the president’s party acknowledged that the events at issue were of genuine national concern and the president’s conduct was deeply disappointing, even if perhaps not so serious as to merit removal. Even in moments of great tension, both parties usually preserved the dignities of debate and kept one eye on how the process would reflect on Congress as an institution. Today’s Republicans—at least those on display in these hearings—have adopted Trump’s own signature move: deny the obvious and accuse one’s critics of whatever you’ve been caught doing. “They accuse President Trump of malfeasance in Ukraine when they, themselves, are culpable,” Nunes said in his opening statement. And far too many abandoned even the forms of civility in favor of personal attacks on Democratic leaders, the media and other boogeymen.

Which brings me to the final point of comparison: Because they lived in a radically different media environment, congressional defenders of neither Nixon nor Clinton could have gotten away with the counterfactual, logic-defying approach taken by Republicans today. Had they attempted it, the major TV networks (even, I suspect, Fox, in its infancy during Clinton's impeachment) and all the print press would have shredded them. Today, this behavior can be effective because the Republicans are secure in the embrace of a political base that primarily consumes media reflexively supportive of Trump. We already know that some Fox News personalities have spent the week calling the hearings “stupid,” “boring, “a joke,” "hearsay" and a “disaster for the Democrats.” Whether the self-evident decency, dedication and candor of the witnesses can penetrate this smokescreen remains to be seen.

“This is the first impeachment investigation that a citizen can watch unfold in real time”

Timothy Naftali is a professor of public service at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. He is a co-author of Impeachment: An American History.

Initially, presidential impeachments came roughly a century apart, making them the very rare national crises that, I suspect, the founders expected them to be. But now a portion of the American population is living through the third impeachment of their lifetimes. That fact alone deserves a moment’s reflection as we consider how the first week of the constitutional investigation of Donald J. Trump stacks up against its two modern predecessors, Richard M. Nixon’s (1973-1974) and William J. Clinton’s (1998-99).

Even those of us with two impeachments under our belts have never seen anything quite like this one. Besides the modern procedural innovation that this time the House Judiciary Committee is not in charge of all aspects of the inquiry, this is also the first impeachment investigation that a citizen (let alone a member of Congress) can watch unfold in real time. In the Clinton era, the public practically learned the whole case for the prosecution at once, when the House dumped independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s salacious report, unedited, on the web. In the Nixon era, the televised Senate Watergate hearings and the very public struggle that ensued between the White House and Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox introduced the public to a lot of the data points of presidential misconduct and issues of possible criminality but neither the Senate nor the special prosecutor initially had a goal of impeachment. It was the Saturday Night Massacre a few months later that led to impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee, which ultimately approved articles of impeachment against Nixon, did most of its work in closed sessions, only publicly revealing the additional important tapes and documents it had collected once the members had largely made up their minds and their televised debate had started.

But what we saw this week was much more than just a dramatic retelling before the cameras of testimony already released in transcript form by the three House committees assigned responsibility for the inquiry. Witnesses Ambassador William Taylor, George Kent and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had important new information to share in real time, especially Taylor. Taylor reported evidence learned since his deposition from a staff member, David Holmes, who had overheard the president characterize investigating the Bidens as the motive behind his Ukraine policy. Within hours, we learned Holmes had agreed to testify later in the week. And, today, he confirmed under oath what he had told Taylor.

Meanwhile, there came news that a key missing link in the story—how and why security assistance to Ukraine had been suspended—might yet be supplied by a staff member of the Office of Management and Budget. That deposition is to occur this weekend.

Finally, unlike in the cases of Nixon and Clinton—two presidential defendants who at least pretended to be focused on their presidential duties as the House deliberated their futures—Trump has insisted on having a starring role in this public impeachment drama. His live tweeting Friday not only influenced the hearing with Yovanovitch but might shape the charges against him. One week in, this is already unmistakably the first social media impeachment.

Of all the presidential impeachment inquiries, this is the one that transcends politics the most

Allan J. Lichtman is a history professor and author of The Case for Impeachment.

Never before has a presidential impeachment inquiry focused so heavily on U.S. foreign policy. That matters because the hearings this week, which involved more big-picture questions about national security than domestic affairs, transcended politics—or at least should have—more than any of the earlier hearings.

All prior impeachments of presidents involved domestic matters. In 1868, the House impeached President Andrew Johnson for firing the sectary of War to obstruct Reconstruction. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon for defying congressional subpoenas and for obstructing justice and abusing power in domestic political events. In 1998, the House impeached President Bill Clinton for covering up a consensual sexual affair. Both Nixon and Clinton refrained from inserting themselves into the impeachment process.

Already, witnesses have testified that President Donald Trump set up a rogue foreign policy headed by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, not to advance American interests but to benefit Trump politically. These witnesses said the effort did not challenge but aided and abetted corruption in Ukraine, and all of them have made the case that Trump sold out American national security interests.

State Department official George Kent testified on Wednesday that, “it was unexpected, and most unfortunate to watch some Americans—including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas—launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine. In my opinion, those attacks undermined U.S. and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”

Two days later, we heard from former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She is an anti-corruption crusader who has served under presidents of both parties and was fired by Trump after a smear campaign orchestrated by Giuliani and corrupt Ukrainians.

Yovanovitch testified that the damage wrought by such McCarthy-style politics extends far beyond her reputation and career. She said that “shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.”

“Such conduct undermines the U.S., exposes our friends and widens the playing field for autocrats like President [Vladimir] Putin,” she continued.

During her testimony, we saw something else that was unprecedented: Trump intervened, tweeting, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.” In real time, Trump was proving himself capable of the kind of national security sabotage Kent sounded the alarm on just two days earlier.

Future votes on impeachment might fall heavily along partisan lines, but the hearings this week made it clear that Trump’s conduct had an impact that rose far beyond political considerations and affected all Americans.

“Oddly enough, when Johnson was impeached in 1868, you might say he was up to the same thing.”

Brenda Wineapple is the author of The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, recently published by Random House.

What struck me most about Ambassador William Taylor’s testimony was his poignant description of the violence being visited upon Ukrainian soldiers at the hands of Russian forces in the Donbass region of Ukraine. U.S. security assistance “allows the Ukrainian military to deter further incursions by the Russians against their own, against Ukrainian territory,” Taylor explained. “If that further incursion, further aggression were to take place, more Ukrainians would die.” Just a week ago, when he toured the region, one Ukrainian soldier had been killed and four were wounded.

Until Taylor’s testimony, I hadn’t heard a more powerful statement of the human cost of President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold the military aid to Ukraine that had been authorized by Congress. And that made me think of President Andrew Johnson. Johnson and Trump’s impeachment cases are more similar than they might at first appear. By asking the president of Ukraine for a favor—to investigate Joe Biden and his son—and by allegedly withholding military aid to get that favor, Trump was trying to interfere with an upcoming election: his own. According to testimony this week, Trump appears to have cared more about an investigation of the Bidens and his own political future than about the welfare of Ukrainians—and, by extension, about U.S. national security.

Oddly enough, when Johnson was impeached in 1868, you might say he was up to the same thing. The deciding issue for the House, which voted overwhelmingly to impeach him, was Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Recently passed by Congress but of dubious constitutionality, the act intended to stop Johnson from firing his secretary of War, who was in charge of the military. The military had recently been tasked to protect black men and their white allies, particularly at the polls where, in 1868, black men in the South could vote for the first time.

Johnson, a Southern Democrat, did not want black men enfranchised in the South, despite Congress’ recent law granting them the vote. In this sense, you could say he too was thinking of his own interests rather than those of the nation. (When Ulysses S. Grant ran for president in 1868, black men in the South ensured his election—and by that time, Johnson, who had been impeached, wasn’t even nominated by either party.)

In his testimony, Taylor said that suspending military aid to Ukraine was wrong. Ukraine, after all, is a country struggling after years of Soviet domination, and it’s a fledgling democracy eager to align itself with the West and its stated values of freedom and self-determination. And so the decision to suspend aid is as wrong as it was to disregard, or perhaps implicitly encourage, the violence in the American South right after the Civil War, when another albeit undeclared war was waged upon black people and their white allies.

“Johnson, Nixon and Clinton didn’t have Twitter on hand”

David Priess is the chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute and the author of How To Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives.

The United States has witnessed a lot in 2½ centuries, but only a few presidential impeachments. Representatives have introduced impeachment resolutions against several chief executives, yes, but only three presidents—Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton—faced hearings that culminated in voting for or against articles of impeachment. Thus we have only a few points of comparison to determine how “normal” this week’s events have been.

And yet, just two days of testimony this week have already highlighted just how unique our moment is. Two reasons rise above all others.

First, this round of impeachment, unlike those three others, centrally involves national security issues. Johnson’s misbehavior ranged far and wide, but it focused on clashes with Congress over the aftermath of the Civil War and over who controlled relevant Cabinet positions. Clinton’s misdeeds were in the realm of perjury and obstruction of justice to cover up a personal matter, not foreign policy folly. Nixon’s impeachment on the margins touched on issues of national security, but his core transgressions fell outside that.

Not so this time. The open hearings on Wednesday and on Friday center on the withholding—for partisan purposes—of national security aid to a vulnerable country, as well as on an effort to involve foreign actors in domestic political machinations.

Second, while former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was testifying in open session on Friday, the president of the United States tweeted a screed against her—the very woman he’d removed from her post in Kyiv after a smear campaign from Rudy Giuliani and others had accused her of failing to press the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump wrote. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Blaming Somalia’s future woes on a woman who was, back then, a junior foreign service officer not only boggled minds, it also prompted Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff to say, “What we saw was witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States.” Rep. Mike Quigley remarked, “The president continues to obstruct.”

Johnson, Nixon and Clinton didn’t have Twitter on hand when Congress went through their respective motions of impeachment. If they had possessed such a tool, even the mercurial and impulsive Johnson, who nevertheless recognized the severity of the situation, probably would have held himself back from attacking a live witness during impeachment proceedings. Trump, of course, did not—or could not. And the forthcoming articles of impeachment may reflect that difference.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting