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Inquiry

Sep 25, 2019 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

After months of restraint that Donald Trump might, secretly, have appreciated, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi decided Tuesday that the full U.S. House of Representatives would begin a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump.

Given how many crises Trump has more or less weathered, this might not come to anything more than some committee hearings, supplemented by the now-familiar Trump tweets about harassment, witch hunts and Hillary Clinton.

For the record, Trump has not been impeached. He might not ever be impeached. And even if he were, he would have to be convicted in a trial in the U.S. Senate, actually, to be removed from office. Each one of those steps is farther and farther fetched than the previous one.

This is the fourth time in U.S. history that the House has gone this far on impeachment. For context, it's worth noting that in the three previous full-on impeachment inquiries, the results have been momentous. In each previous instance, the president either was impeached and put on trial in the Senate or, in the case of Richard Nixon, resigned the office when he saw the devastating handwriting on the wall.

President Andrew Johnson, who rose to the presidency in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, seem to be doomed as the Senate began its trial in 1868. But, in the fresh aftermath of the Civil War, wheeling and dealing lone senators from North and South succeeded, against expectations and predictions, in acquitting Johnson by a one-vote margin. Later that year, Gen. Ulysses Grant was elected president in a landslide.

In the case of Bill Clinton in 1988, no one ever had any realistic expectation that he would be ousted. The fiery and flamboyant Speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich, now acknowledges that he was pushing an impeachment that was unpopular with the public. (Clinton's approval ratings polled at more than 60 percent before impeachment and higher than that afterward.)

And with a Senate controlled by Democrats, there was never any chance that Clinton would be removed - particularly given the unsavory but relatively benign basis of the inquiry, namely, that he had lied about a sexual affair with the White House intern. That is child's play compared to the many allegations facing Trump.

In 1974, Nixon was mired in scandal, writhing in very public misery as the Watergate investigations continued. The House Judiciary Committee spent months investigating and finally passed three articles of impeachment. Importantly, all three passed on a bipartisan basis. Democrats had the majority on the committee, but six of 17 Republicans voted for one of the articles, seven of 17 on the second, and two of 17 on the third.

Before the full U.S. House got to vote on impeachment, a group of Republican U.S. Senators and House members visited Nixon in the White House and told him his presidency could not survive a Senate trial. Two days later he resigned. Interestingly, then, the one previous impeachment inquiry that did not lead to actual impeachment is the only one that led to the president's leaving office.

There are some similarities between Trump's case and the other impeachment actions. But the biggest difference is that partisan positions are so battle-hardened now that it's hard to imagine any circumstance -- any at all -- that would lead Trump stalwarts in the House and Senate to vote against him.

If even one of the announced committee inquiries came to a vote, would there be a single Republican vote to impeach Trump? Highly, highly unlikely.

Trump isn't going anywhere. And by now a lot of people will claim to be tired of all the hounding he is put through. But beyond any votes or outcomes, this is historic.

For all the political bluster that has permeated Washington from the beginning, this sort of thing actually is extraordinarily rare. This is no textbook exercise, no night at the debate club, no TV news panel argument.

It is real, and it deserves the nation's attention, if for no other reason than history.

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2020-05-27

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