The Current

Republican dam of support for Trump 'could break in a hurry,' says impeachment expert

Presidential historian Jeffrey Engel talks us through how the new impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump compares to older cases, and why the Democrats may have decided to make their move now.

Support for Nixon 'evaporated almost overnight,' says Jeffrey Engel

U.S. President Donald Trump has denied he tried to leverage a foreign government to act against political rival Joe Biden. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

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The United States may only have impeached two sitting presidents, but one historian says those cases can tell us something about the new inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump Tuesday. It's alleged that he held back $391 million in military aid for Ukraine, and asked the country's president to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden — in a bid to help his own reelection.

Before Pelosi's announcement, Trump denied that charge, but acknowledged he blocked the funds, later released. However on Wednesday, the Trump administration released a summary of the July call that showed Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate whether Biden — while he was vice-president — shut down an investigation into a company that employed his son.

To discuss why the lessons of history — and why the Democrats are acting now — The Current's guest host Laura Lynch spoke to Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian and the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, Texas. Here is part of their conversation.

Nancy Pelosi announces Trump impeachment inquiry over Ukraine affair

3 years ago
Duration 6:00
U.S. House Speaker said Tuesday the House of Representatives will launch a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump over the Ukraine affair.

It's interesting that Pelosi chose this moment and this aspect of his presidency to start an impeachment inquiry, because there's been many other calls for his impeachment over the last several months.

We still haven't seen the transcript from the phone call, we haven't heard from the whistleblower, we don't even know who it is. Why would she move forward, not knowing exactly what the case is going to be? [Editor's note: the Trump administration released a summary of the call on Wednesday.]

Well, you know, here I think history actually provides some guide. There's only been of course a handful of cases of impeachment — or in the case of Richard Nixon near-impeachment, leading to resignation — in the nation's history. But they have one thing in common, which is that each of them centres in many ways around a president defying the will of Congress.

And so I think what really brought this to a head in many ways for Pelosi was the administration's refusal, which is still somewhat ongoing to release the full details of the whistleblower report.

Now, the law on this is very clear: that if there is a whistleblower and if the director of national intelligence determines that this is actually something that is a critical issue, the information is required to go to Congress. And consequently when President Trump's administration is at this point not conceding a full version, that's essentially the president thumbing his nose, if you will, at Congress.

Whenever we see congressional prerogatives — especially in the realm of national security — violated so blatantly, that's the sort of thing that a congressional leader simply can't turn her back on.

But this White House has done that time and again, refusing to allow witnesses to testify and not turning over documentation. Is it simply that this case is an easier one for Americans to grasp?

I think it's an easier one and it's also potentially the most blatant, in the sense that this is something that involves national security. It's as you say easy to grasp, and there is that unknown, which of course neither you nor I nor hardly anyone in the world knows, of what the whistleblower might be actually saying or what evidence he or she might actually be bringing to bear.

Whatever it is, it appears to be enough to cause the entire government to essentially stop and focus on what they are saying.

This is actually remarkable that we've gone down this road as a country time and again for the last two-and-a-half years. Why is this time different? It appears just to have been enough.

How hard is it to impeach a president?

3 years ago
Duration 2:02
Impeachment is the political process of removing from office certain elected or public officials accused of wrongdoing. The process is more difficult than you might think.

How is the [Republican] leadership viewing the impeachment inquiry?

They appear to be trying to do the same playbook they've been doing for the last two-and-a-half years, which is to say any critique against Donald Trump's actions as president are really critiques about the outcome of the 2016 election. It's sour grapes or a witch hunt, as the president would say.

I think that's one of the reasons why this appears to be a different case. This case, unlike the Mueller investigation, and unlike previous scandals and near-scandals that the president was involved in, has nothing to do whatsoever with 2016. This is about his time in office and about going forward.

So at this point Republicans are to some extent circling the wagons. But I do have to say here's another place where history is a little bit of a guide.

Richard Nixon — who of course resigned under pressure of impeachment — was himself, like Trump, tremendously popular with Republicans. He actually was relatively popular with the country as a whole throughout the whole of 1974. He of course resigned in August.

The truth of the matter is, once his support eroded however, once that piece of evidence came out that seemed just too believable to be discounted, his support evaporated almost overnight. Within 72 hours or so Nixon went from believing he had more than 40 votes in the Senate on his behalf down to about 15. That's what caused his resignation, which is to say when the dam of support breaks, it can break in a hurry.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Ben Jamieson, Ines Colabrese and Danielle Carr. Q&A had been edited for length and clarity.

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