On September 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the initiation of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The revelations from a whistleblower that President Trump had pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate his potential Democratic opponent Joe Biden changed the calculus for the Democratic leader and many other congressional Democrats, ending their resistance to pursuing this course of action.
As this is only the fourth time a president has been subjected to an impeachment inquiry, there are few historical parallels to draw upon. Politico, for example, immediately asked “The Big Impeachment Question: Is This 1974 or 1998?” Would impeachment bring down the president, as in 1974, or would it backfire and potentially even make the president more popular, as in 1998?
This post attempts to provide a unique perspective on the impeachment process by highlighting some archival documents on the issue of Nixon’s potential impeachment in 1973 and 1974. As part of my research on my dissertation and book project, The Representative Presidency: Ideas and Institutional Change, I spent time looking at the congressional papers of Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) at the Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library at Bates College and Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) at the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas. Unsurprisingly, impeachment was an issue that dominated their correspondence and internal deliberations.
Two basic themes emerge from an examination of the papers of these senators. First, the impeachment process is unpredictable and can be a tool that changes perceptions of the president’s actions. Few Americans initially thought Richard Nixon would deserve removal from office in 1973. An outcome that, in hindsight, seems preordained in fact required the revelations that emerged from the impeachment investigation to move public and elite opinion. To be sure, in today’s more polarized politics, this dynamic may not be as likely or perhaps even possible, but it is nonetheless instructive to consider how the impeachment inquiry itself was a cause of changing views of Nixon, rather than being an effect of those changing views.
Second, impeachment is fundamentally a political process, rather than simply a legal one. Beyond determining whether a president has engaged in wrongdoing, the impeachment process essentially involves defining and redefining appropriate standards of presidential conduct and power. To use Keith Whittington’s term, impeachment is a process of “constitutional construction.”
Impeachment Investigations May Change the Political Calculus
Early on, the Watergate scandal was not at all certain to drive Nixon from office. Indeed, the language of critics of the inquiry bears some striking similarities to President Trump and his allies’ criticisms of any investigation of the president today. As one citizen complained to Senator Muskie on May 23, 1973, “You + your colleagues are engaged in a headline hunting witchhunt.”
Muskie’s Senate office staff was uncertain what the reaction to coming out in favor of impeachment might be for Muskie’s political prospects, including for a potential run for president. On October 3, 1973, the staff internally considered what the reactions to Muskie’s speech on impeachment might be. “The immediate response is likely to be stormy,” an office memorandum reported, “but it is unlikely to be overwhelmingly ‘favorable’ or ‘unfavorable.’” In fact, Muskie’s staff even thought it might hurt his presidential prospects by making him seem too partisan: “The impact on a Presidential race is more likely to be clearly negative, since ESM would likely be seen by the public as a partisan, even if his conclusions are generally accepted.” However, the memo did not that “it is remotely possible that the speech could have favorable consequences for a Presidential race.” In a handwritten addition to the memo, one staffer added that Muskie’s speech itself might have an impact on public opinion about impeachment: “But regardless of the precise net consequences to ESM, speech could have great impact on public opinion + opinion leaders.”
Thus, Muskie’s office recognized a broader responsibility for how the senator’s statement about Nixon’s actions and an impeachment investigation could affect how the public evaluated the impeachment process.
The changing calculation for politicians during the impeachment process is strikingly illustrated by the changes in Senator’s Dole’s correspondence about Watergate from 1973 to 1974. Notably, Dole had just previously been the Chair of the Republican National Committee.
In 1973, Dole was resistant to the notion that Watergate had anything to do with President Nixon. For example, on July 25, 1973, Dole firmly separated the actions of those involved in the Watergate break-in from the president himself: “As I have stated many times, all Americans are appalled at the activities of some of the individuals involved in the Watergate, and I am confident that we will know the truth when the hearings are concluded. However, I also believe these[ ]activities represent only a very few individuals’ actions.”
On August 30, 1973, Dole expressed skepticism that there was any reason for concern that Nixon would be implicated by Watergate and did not expect him to be impeached. He also argued for a legal standard that Nixon was innocent unless proven otherwise: “With respect to Watergate, we are certainly in agreement that none of the evidence yet disclosed would justify consideration of impeachment of the President. Like all Americans he must be held innocent until proven guilty. It is my hope and belief that there will be no proof to implicate him in illegal activity.”
Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC), leading the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal, received a letter complaining that Dole that he should not be so stridently critical of the impeachment process. The letter to Ervin from Kansas publisher Stuart Awbrey that was critical of Dole’s attitude toward the investigation was also sent to Dole with a handwritten annotation: “Bob – Just to let you know one reaction – I really think you’re working against yourself in this – + pleasing only the rabid partisans.”
Dole remained skeptical. In response to one critical letter from a constituent, Dole replied, “You write like an anti-Nixon Democrat.”
But the events of 1974 started to change Dole’s views and position on impeachment.
As of July, Dole was still mostly defending Nixon. When tapes were released that revealed Nixon’s language out of the public eye, Dole did criticize his swearing: “Certainly understand the way you feel about the language the President is quoted as having used in the Oval office or in conversation with his staff. While I do not pretend to [condone] this, I think it’s worth pointing out at least that it was never used in public forums, but only in his private conversation where he apparently thought it appropriate.”
Yet Dole was growing more concerned. And soon after, with the release of the tapes showing Nixon had ordered a cover-up, Dole’s position starkly changed. His letters after Nixon’s resignation expressed this. He wrote on August 16, 1974: “As long as there was a possibility of a Senate trial, I felt it would be inappropriate for me, as a potential juror, to form an opinion regarding President Nixon’s guilt or innocence, until I had heard all the facts. Of course, during the week of August 5th, developments changed very rapidly.”
Dole noted in an August 26, 1974 letter that he had also publicly called for Nixon’s resignation: “as you perhaps will recall, I had publicly stated it was my belief that President Nixon should resign.”
In fact, Dole’s view changed so much that he was critical of President Gerald Ford for pardoning Nixon. On September 13, 1974, he wrote, “In my view, the pardon was premature. I[ ]have said it was a mistake… I cannot agree with the decision to grant a pardon even before legal process had been started against Richard Nixon.”
So Dole, who had initially supported Nixon, ended up being a harsh critic. On the other side, Muskie, who was critical of Nixon, changed tactics slightly in the wake of his resignation. Perhaps wary of appearing too partisan, he praised Nixon’s resignation speech for being conciliatory: “He is to be commended for focusing our attention now on the need for reconciliation.” “The President felt he could best serve the country by undertaking to strike a conciliatory note. I really can’t fault him for that, and, as a matter of fact, I think it is a service.”
As Dole and Muskie’s papers indicate, neither of them entirely knew where the impeachment process would go. The process itself changed their political calculus.
Impeachment is Political, Not Just Legal
Muskie and Dole’s papers also contain interesting discussions of how impeachment is a political process, rather than just a legal one.
Early on in Congress’s investigation of Watergate, one of Senator Muskie’s staffers pointed out the history-making possibilities if Muskie became involved in the impeachment process. Rather than simply deciding the fate of a president, Muskie could be part of establishing standards for presidential conduct and setting the boundaries of appropriate uses of presidential power. After studying the history of impeachment, staffer Reid Feldman wrote to Muskie in a private memo, “The most important realization that comes out of a study of impeachment is that there are few established standards, but that you could be instrumental in creating those standards.”
Dole too, in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, discussed the notion of how impeachment dealt with political issues and standards of presidential behavior. He wrote how impeachment was not simply a legal process in a letter on August 26, 1974. “It is my feeling that [good or] bad the impeachment process as set out in the Constitution is more a political one than it is judicial. I mean by this not that legal standards should not apply but that the founding fathers obviously intended that more than legal consideration would be permissive.” In other words, in Dole’s view, presidents’ behavior did not need to be explicit illegal for impeachment to be justified. He continued: “If this were not the case they would not have resolved their debate on the subject by assigning impeachment powers to the Congress. They would have given it to the Supreme Court instead.”
This point by Dole is profound. Because Congress has this power, and not the Supreme Court, the standards of impeachment are explicitly political. Indeed, as Matt Glassman pointed out in a Twitter thread, in terms of formal powers, Congress has an upper hand over the other two branches. It is the only one that can unilaterally remove other officials. No such recourse is available to presidents or justices angry at legislators.
Both Muskie and Dole came to realize that impeachment was not simply about establishing whether a president committed a crime. It was about standards of presidential conduct and issues of presidential power. Such issues inherently are political. The impeachment process amounted to an attempted renegotiation of the boundaries of presidential power. “Impeachment [is] a political phenomenon,” political scientist David Mayhew wrote at the time, preparing a lecture on the subject for his Yale undergraduates in a U.S. Congress course on April 15, 1974.
It remains too early to tell where the impeachment effort against President Trump will end up. But this brief tour of the Nixon impeachment, through the papers of two senators, reminds us of some things to look out for. The impeachment process itself can reshape elite and public opinion. Events can change even the views of some strong partisans. And impeachment is not simply about legal issues. It is about politics, and it deals with determining the boundaries of presidential power.