The history of presidential misconduct puts a whole new light on the Trump impeachment hearings

When viewed through the lens of today, the defense of Trump by Republicans seems reprehensible to a growing number of Americans. Despite the daily piling up of more evidence of his illegal attempt to force a foreign government to interfere with our elections, most Republicans continue to vociferously support the president. Those who are inching away, such as Senators Linda Murkowski and Mitt Romney, do so with extreme care. Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds has influenced almost no Republicans to look at Trump in a new light, just as most Republicans ignored Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia—at least at first. 

But in the context of American history, the Republican reaction is pretty standard. As you can learn by reading Presidential Misconduct, virtually everything about the current situation resembles most presidential scandals throughout American history. 

Presidential Misconduct is a compendium essays about investigations into the misdeeds of presidents and their immediate coterie edited by the distinguished historian James M. Banner, Jr. Originally commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee during the 1974 Watergate Hearings, Presidential Misconduct presents the historical record of the misdeeds of past presidents and their cronies reaching back to the Washington administration and compiled by leading presidential scholars of the day. The Committee originally conceived of the book as a benchmark against which Nixon’s misdeeds could be measured. A recently published update includes all the presidential administrations through Obama’s. What is stunning is the degree to which every controversy surrounding virtually every potential presidential misdeed—whether an impeachment hearing or a Congressional investigation—follows a set pattern that only three people break: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and now, Donald Trump.

In depicting this pattern, I will leave out consideration of one investigation—the impeachment of Bill Clinton related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In every other of the literally hundreds of cases of investigating a president or his administration for wrongdoing (including other accusations against Clinton), the issue was either corrupt practices in which money exchanged hands for favorable treatment or unlawful attempts to influence elections. Only in the case of Slick Willie’s oval office affair was the issue a personal indiscretion—in this case, a sexual relationship between consenting adults. Despite the fact that there are many instances of fooling around by presidents or their advisers, Congress has only once decided to open an investigation related to a sexual dalliance, which lead to Clinton stupidly do what most people do when confronted by their infidelity—they lie. Again, there are numerous documented cases of presidents lying or stretching the truth—Tyler, Lincoln, LBJ, Reagan, Bush II—to name just a few before our current liar-in-chief. You know, the one who manufactures new lies almost on a daily basis. Yet very few have been taken to task for lying and no president other than Clinton suffered punishment for lying about a personal matter. The Trump impeachment hearings have so far completely ignored the more than 20 outstanding accusations of sexual assault against the Donald. A strongly partisan element infects all investigations of presidential malfeasance, to be sure. But the Clinton case is so out of the ordinary that we can learn nothing from it that we can apply to the current situation.

With that caveat out of the way, what we learn from Presidential Misconduct is that the unfolding of the Trump impeachment hearings proves the validity of the old French expression, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” 1) In virtually all cases, someone found malfeasance by a member of cabinet, a high ranking advisor, an entire department or a close relative or friend of the president. 2) Opinions have always split down party lines, with the party of the president and friendly media aggressively proclaiming the innocence of the accused party and the opposing party and media hotly and noisily proclaiming and pursuing guilt. 3) A common defense was to admit the suspect events took place but insist they were not illegal. 4) Presidents have varied in the speed of their responsiveness to requests for information and the testimony of subordinates. Yet while executive privilege was sometimes invoked at an early point, at the end of the day presidents almost always have provided the information requested without lawsuit and virtually all witnesses called ended up testifying or giving a deposition. 5) The president always loyally supports those accused, often after their guilt has been well established. In most cases, the president runs into the most trouble for his continued backing of a crony or subordinate under investigation. 6) Often, as with the case of Grant, Harding and Truman, the dastardly deeds turned out to be legal, but didn’t pass the common sense “smell test.” In these cases, Congress passed new laws and /or the department in question changed its standard practices.

Most important, every president except Madison, Polk and Ford has faced a number of major scandals in his administration, and at the end of the day, virtually none were blamed for it. Either the officer, department or crony was exonerated, or the president was found completely innocent of knowing anything about the crimes. Besides Nixon’s administration, among the most corrupt were those of Tyler, Buchanan, Grant Harding, Truman, Reagan and Bush II. The Reagan administration provides an interesting case: The administration involved itself in as much law-breaking as Nixon’s did, but Reagan never personally benefited from any of the corruption and no one could find evidence that he knew about the political scandals like Iran-Contra. In a sense, he was a modern Ulysses Grant, personally incorruptible and idealistic, but surrounded by a den of thieves. With investigations exonerating presidents for everything except bad judgment and rigid loyalty, impeachment was hardly ever mentioned and almost never attempted.

Kevin M. Kruse said it best in summarizing the Carter administrations on page 402: “In the end, the three main scandals of the Carter Administration followed the general pattern, in which sloppy financial practices and suspect business dealings invited close inspection but ultimately proved to have fallen short of outright criminal misdeeds.

The first exception to this pattern of presidential exoneration was Andrew Johnson, whose “high crimes and misdemeanors” involved orders he gave and did not give, specifically concerning the Secretary of War and the treatment of the renegade southern states returned to the union only after a long, bloody war. In a sense, Johnson’s impeachment and near conviction was the last skirmish of the Civil War.

The second exception was Nixon, who unlike all other presidents, knew all about all the corruption in his administration, serving as the source and center for most of it. The Watergate break-in and other dirty tricks. The illegal pay-offs to silence the guilty and protect the administration. The enemies list. The illegal campaign contributions. It was Nixon who authorized the illegal bombing of Cambodia and directed his representatives to convince the South Vietnamese to refuse to come to the negotiating table until after the 1968 election. Nixon was as dirty as dirty can be.

And that’s why I think Trump is going down. 

Trumpty-Dumpty, like Tricky Dicky, is at the center of every controversy as instigator, motivator and bad actor. His already debunked fantasies of the Bidens corruptly profiting from Papa Joe’s influence as vice president and of Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election served as the motivating factor in the illegal and unethical actions of Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Pompeo and others in Ukraine. Trump is leading the cover-up by refusing to hand over documents or let officials testify. Like Nixon and Cambodia, Trump is solely responsible for the scandals that are not part of the impeachment proceedings but are causes for additional disgruntlement, such as the betrayal of the Kurds, the separation of children at the border, the exit from the Iranian nuclear deal and the Paris Accord, and Trump’s record of sexual assault and harassment.

Like Nixon, all the evidence points to Trump being dirty. 

Those despairing that like Andrew Johnson and Clinton, Trump will be impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate should consider that we’re still early in the process, still at the point at which all opinion has a highly partisan tinge to it. 

What the Republican Senators are waiting for is a smoking gun. And if Nixon serves as a precedent, the court will supply the requisite still-hot firearm by forcing Trump to turn over material including his taxes. I’m guessing that the requirement to turn over the taxes will compel Trump to resign from office rather than let it out that he is owned by Russian interests and that he is worth far less than a billion smackers. But whatever it is, something in what we find in the taxes or in the records that the administration wants to keep hidden will hang Trump with his own party. He will most likely resign in a deal that spares him indictment on any federal or state charges rather than face conviction. If in his crazy grandiosity, the Donald refuses to follow the Nixon model, he will not have a big enough Praetorian guard, loyal only to him, to attempt to stay in office by force after his conviction. While we can spin apocalyptic fantasies about the end of our democracy, I think we can realistically depend on the loyalty to the United States and our Constitution by the military, the Secret Service, the FBI and local police. 

History suggests that because the investigation centers on Trump and not his subordinates, the likely result will be that he leaves office before his term is up. That is, assuming the smoking gun produces enough smoke.

Meanwhile, although we may consider the Republicans sticking to Trump like white to rice to be despicable, they are in fact engaged in nothing more than business as usual, the same business that has surrounded presidential misconduct since the time of George Washington.

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