Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, October 22, 2016

Originally posted at The Washington Spectator

The recent 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office gives us a useful perspective on the calls by right-wingers for the impeachment of President Barack Obama.

The grounds they claim are vague, if not incoherent. In July, for example, Sarah Palin, former Republican vice-presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite, charged him with “purposeful dereliction of duty,” because people illegally cross the Mexican border into the U.S. This despite the fact that Obama has deported more undocumented aliens than all prior presidents combined. Republicans in the House and Senate have openly toyed with the idea of impeachment. One representative wistfully exclaimed that impeachment of Obama would be a “dream come true.”

The Constitution allows impeachment only for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Neither treason, a term defined in the Constitution, nor bribery, a term not defined but well understood, is alleged by the president’s detractors.

The key term is “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Its meaning is somewhat opaque, because it is archaic and no longer in general use. Still, we can find the meaning in British legal history as well as in the debates surrounding the adoption of the Constitution. High crimes and misdemeanors are political “crimes,” meaning serious abuses of power. They are not crimes in the ordinary sense of the word (although they might be), but political misdeeds so grave that they threaten the system of government itself or the rights of the people.

Impeachment power was given to Congress because the framers were wise about human nature and recognized that a president could so endanger our democracy and our liberties that the country could not wait until the next presidential election for relief. Yet the framers did not want the impeachment power to create a parliamentary system in which the president would be subservient to Congress, something that could readily happen if the grounds for removal were broad and votes to impeach easy to obtain. The framers narrowed the grounds so that dislike of a president’s policies or of the way a president managed the government (“maladministration”) would not permit a president’s removal. And because impeachment unravels a presidential election, the centerpiece of our democracy, the framers made the removal of a president from office difficult, requiring not just a majority vote in the House of Representatives, but a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

These barriers to frivolous impeachments have ensured that in the 225 years since the country’s founding, no president has been removed from office, although the House of Representatives, buoyed by partisan emotions, has voted twice for impeachment, once in the case of President Andrew Johnson and the other in the case of President Bill Clinton. Both impeachments have not held up well in the light of history. The Johnson impeachment grew out of disagreements between Congress and the president about Reconstruction. The Clinton impeachment involved his testimony in a civil deposition about his sexual relationship with a White House intern. Whether false or disingenuous, the president’s testimony did not involve any use, much less abuse, of his presidential powers, and the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds vote to remove him from office.

Contempt for the Constitution

The Nixon impeachment proceedings — which have never seriously been challenged even after 40 years of historical scrutiny — offer a stark contrast. In the fall of 1973, the House Judiciary Committee commenced impeachment proceedings. They were triggered by the enormous public outcry after Nixon ordered the Special Watergate Prosecutor fired for trying to obtain tape recordings of White House conversations about Watergate. After conducting its own lengthy inquiry, the committee voted on a bipartisan basis for articles of impeachment. Then a White House tape, ordered released by the U.S. Supreme Court, proved by his own words that Nixon personally orchestrated the cover-up of the Watergate break in from the beginning. At that point, all the holdout Republicans announced support for impeachment, making the committee’s decision unanimous. This meant that the House and Senate would vote overwhelmingly for impeachment and removal from office. It was in light of the certainty of that vote that Richard Nixon resigned.

There were two key features of the Judiciary Committee proceedings: first, bipartisanship and fairness and second, the compiling of overwhelming evidence that proved a broad range of misconduct. The first article of impeachment dealt with the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. The article described a host of Nixon misdeeds, including offering money and presidential pardons to the Watergate burglars to ensure their silence; suborning perjury of his aides; obtaining secret grand jury information and passing it on to potential witnesses. (Significantly, Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate obstruction of justice trial in which his top aides were convicted and sent to prison.) The second article was for abuse of power — the use of presidential power to attack the constitutional rights of Americans for personal, political gain. These acts included authorizing the illegal wiretapping of journalists and White House aides; approving the break in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to obtain defamatory materials against Ellsberg (who had released The Pentagon Papers); ordering IRS audits of persons who opposed Nixon’s policies and were on his “enemies list”; and on a phony claim of national security, directing the CIA to stop the FBI investigation into the Watergate break in.

After the committee debated the evidence and the law in televised hearings, the American people strongly supported the committee’s decisions, despite the fact that many had voted for Nixon’s re-election only a year and a half earlier. The proceedings upheld the rule of law.

Sadly, the facts behind the Nixon impeachment experience have been largely forgotten. Republicans, angry at the elections of Clinton and Obama, have tried to undo what was decided at the ballot box. Impeachment proceedings that have no basis in fact or law simply show contempt for the Constitution, for democracy and for the American people.

Former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman is an author and practicing lawyer. She served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2014 The National Memo
  • 1standlastword

    It’s clear to me that this new class of republicans–constantly proclaiming their fealty to the constitution–have acted rough handed not only with the office of the president but reckless with the health of the nation by shutting down the government and by doing so sullied the good faith and credit of the nation and caused economic injury to thousands of federal employees including military personnel. Their reckless budgetary policies have made the country less secure as well less healthy. Their recalcitrance has hurt their fellow Americans around healthcare, income potential and basic human rights and all this for the sake of proffering their own self righteous idiosyncratic philosophies. They have recently been marginalized by their more sober minded colleagues and completely rejected by mainstream America…AND they want us to take them serious for their fantastic wish to symbolically lynch a black president. I personally don’t consider calling them republicans legitimate. I consider them better to be under the spell of atavism….Their political goals are truly consistent with the spirit of the white colonial Southerners of old…antebellum South. We will see how in the remaining 2 years of Mr. Obama’ term that their party will have to strategically and tactically isolate them so the HARD work of governing can be carried on. If we as a whole were more reactionary than they it is they who would be impeached.

    • TZToronto

      One problem with both the far right in Congress and the far right of the population is that they think that the Constitution they want is the Constitution they actually have. The Constitution they want still counts black people as only 3/5 of a person. The Constitution they want has only one Bill of Rights amendment (#2). The Constitution they want says that any President they don’t like can be kicked to the curb just because they don’t like him (or her in a few years). The Constitution they actually have, which they claim to support but probably haven’t read (except for #2–in part) has a whole bunch of amendments they’ve probably never heard of, doesn’t establish a state religion, and details why and how a President may be removed from office. The sad thing is that when confronted by the real Constitution, many of these self-styled patriots stick to their anti-Constitutional guns (both literally and figuratively) as if what they want has some force in law.

      • … & is the best example of how totally ignorant both elected conservatives AND those who vote for them, are about the Constitution!!! This (hate) is a personal vendetta. They (conservatives) only want to distract the public away from the reality of who the actual worst President in the nations history (GWB & his 2001-2009 administration) was. W/unlimited money, it’s now a dream come true for them…

        • Bush was bad, but what we got to replace him was worse. Bush provided the climate for an unvetted, illegal nobody to get put into the highest office of this country. The Emperor is an enemy of the state, and should be treated as such.

          • midway54

            There are not enough adjectives available to fully describe the depth of your ignorance. Your insubstantive rants are the products of a vulnerable mental state lacking in critical thinking shared by millions across the Country who are being successfully targeted by the crowd at Fox “News” and other crackpot sources. So, while you are beating the drums and cheering the plutocrats and their serfs, they will see you and the others running off in every election to politically fornicate yourself, them, and all the rest of us by sending right wing scoundrels to Washington.

          • Better to have right wing scoundrels in Washington, than the bunch of liberal commies we have had.

          • midway54

            Truly amazing!

          • porter

            HUM SINCE WHEN DO WE VETT PEOPLE UNLESS IT ON THE CAMPAINE TRAIL TO BE THE PRESIDENT OF AMERICA DO YOU REALLY REAGEN WOULD HAVE BEEN ELECT IF HE WAS VETTED please elect and the last time we check a republican senator from HA. stated for record that Obama was if fact born in a hospital in HA. but guess you means because his mom had the good since to marry a black man. well that just goes to show you that she was a commie and the republican senator who is or was a women she may have lost her last election she’s one too .Do strong WOMEN OR BLACK MEN SCARE YOU if so you can get help.

      • latebloomingrandma

        I wish I had written that! Spot on!

        • TZToronto

          I’m honored that you feel that way–really.

      • porter

        GREAT POST

        • TZToronto


  • There’s really, REALLY something wrong w/a nation of people devoid of intelligence to the level that they would rather burn down their own house (of state) than let all share in its vast benefits & wealth. Democrats ‘ran’ from the President & lost. Conservatives ‘ran’ against the President & won. This says alot about the racial barometer of both the ‘conservative’ & ‘Liberal’ vectors of where the nation is & where it ‘seems’ to be going. None of the crisis from the 2008 crash have yet to be corrected. As of this election, they won’t be. But understand, being ‘leaderless’ (by that, I mean WE – the CITIZENRY – collective, w/competent, knowledgeable representatives in office) these last 14 YEARS means that the next crisis will be global, but won’t be fixable in the lifetime of any living human. In fact, the very youngest may witness the actual demise of life on the planet. This elections’ outcome is just that dire!!! But maybe now, people will pay attention. Too bad it may be too late…

    • TZToronto

      The one almost insurmountable problem the right has at the moment is the guy standing there, holding back the flood with his finger in the dike. He is the one they have to get past in order to work their evil deeds in the next two years–because that’s all the time they have. I really think that we have to encourage, as much as we can, President Obama to stand tall against the right-wing stupidity that will reach his desk between now and the end of December, 2016. As far as I can tell, vetoing bills is not an impeachable offense. (If the bills are really good, Congress will override the veto, but the GOP will need Democratic help.) Neither is refusing to cave in to right-wing efforts to destroy the country, although the GOP will try anything.

      • Maybe if you lived in this country, and were not just an American in name only, you would not see things through the liberal fog of lies and deceit. The liberals are trying to turn America into a socialist/communist police state. The emperor SHOULD be removed as soon as possible, and a REAL American should hold the office of President. It is the liberal policies and agenda that s destroying America, with those blind supporters helping to destroy the Constitution along with our rights and freedoms.

        • TZToronto

          Do you check for communists under your bed when you go to sleep at night? Get over it already. President Obama was elected–legally!!!–twice. He didn’t need the Supreme Court to select him. There’s nothing whatsoever imperial about his Presidency. You’re delusional and paranoid, sad to say. By the way, which of your rights has President Obama taken away? Be specific now.

        • porter


          • As I have said all along, I don’t care what color he is. I care about what he does. I once voted for him(2x) and supported him, until he started to show what he was all about. Nothing but lies and deceit. He has no past, and all his records are sealed. His entire life is cloaked in secrecy. That is not a President.

  • Gavrila Derzhavin

    The forces of today’s liberalism are the same forces that impelled its marxist, socialist, and communist ancestors.

    • Lynda Groom

      Oh my!

      • midway54

        How do you like that for depth and substance? Just say it….and that is that. That of course is the m.o. of the gang at Fox because they know that the dimwits in the audience require nothing more, but will lap it up and parrot it to others

        • Lynda Groom

          Indeed. The irony is beyond comprehension for most ot them.

    • Mikey7a

      You are a paid Republican shill. You repeat this same line everywhere. How about telling us your own thoughts, instead of being a T-Party Parrot?

    • porter


    • Sand_Cat

      And you’re the same liar and idiot you always have been and always will be.

  • FT66

    They are republicans, it is all hats with no cows. Where will they get two thirds of Senators (which is 67 senators), to initiate the removal? I always argue with my old die hard republican Mum. She insists I know nothing about impeachment because I was young during Nixon impeachment. She thinks it is all about sitting on the chair, get grilled and scream: “am not a crook” and that is the end of Presidency!

    • The Emperor would never admit he did anything wrong. He will blame anyone else, but himself. He has done far more that is illegal than Nixon has ever done, but there are so many liberals that worship him, that THEY will fall on their swords, just to protect and coverup all that he has done against our country.

      • howa4x

        Name them and cite by statue which laws he has violated

        • Sand_Cat

          He never will, and we both know it.

        • Doesn’t consistently lying to the American people count as a crime? How about ignoring laws, and our Constitution?

          • Sand_Cat

            If lying to Americans were a crime, every Republican office-holder in the last 30 years at least would be in prison for life. Ignoring laws and the Constitution is routine GOP behavior. YOU STILL HAVEN’T CITED A SINGLE ACTUAL EXAMPLE OF EITHER LAWBREAKING, OR IGNORING THE CONSTITUTION, NOR ANY CREDIBLE CLAIM OF LYING ON AN IMPORTANT ISSUE.

          • howa4x

            So GWB lied about WMD’d in Iraq and plunged us into a costly war that wasn’t an impeachable offence? When Cheney gave a no bid 6 billion contract to Halliburton for Iraq, a company he was the former CEO of, that wasn’t an impeachable offense, or when Cheney’s office outed a CIA agent, which is considered treason, that wasn’t a crime. Obama deported more Illegal immigrants than all other presidents combined. If the house passed 1 bill Obama would have had to do anything. You are spouting right wing blather. So have the balls to impeach him, on trumped up charges, and find out what happens to your beloved republicans

      • porter

        ken name one thing after all the special juries headed by the republicans not one time have they found anything. The republican say they are for limited govt. how about if they would stop spending my and your money on stupid things .The president has the right to make exc,. decision as is require by law if congress fails to do their job now you may have a problem with how Obama is running the country but let’s be real they were the one’s that shut down the govt. not the pres. because they couldn’t get their way. Kept their paycheck though . on another note just putting this out there would like your opinion on this . How come if you or I work on a job and get fried after 4 years we don’t get full retirement benefits ,But be they dem. or rep. if they get unelected even after 2years they still get a full retirement package for the rest of their lives now as a conservative I think you would fine it kind of strange as me a liberal that if you or I have to work for 20 or more years why don’t they maybe this is something that we can say enough if they don’t get elected to make to the 20 they don’t get retirement your thoughts

        • Actually, it was the Emperor that refused to compromise on the debt. He flat out refused to even talk about it, then after closing things like parks and white house tours, he went on a very expensive, very lavish vacation with his fabricated family to Africa. I really wish he would have stayed in his home country, and left our country alone.

          • Sand_Cat

            Ken, give it up. You can’t support one claim you make with facts. Obama came to Washington eager to talk and compromise and work with the GOP, and they spat in his face. He closed things because they closed the government, announcing he wouldn’t negotiate with those who sought to blackmail him by threatening the country’s credit rating and international economic disaster to take out their trivial vendetta against him out on the nation. Sort of like saying he wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. If Bush or Reagan had done the same, you would have praised his courage to high heaven. And your claim about “lavish” vacations is just more lies from those who want to divert attention from the fact that his predecessor spent most of his time in office on vacation (literally), and the rest out to lunch (figuratively).

          • Bush, along with most other Presidents were American citizens, and had a past life and home. They had homes to go to when they were away from the White House. Their vacations didn’t cost taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars. They didn’t have their wives and kids fly separately, or have a separate aircraft for their DOG The Emperor doesn’t have a past apparently. Unlike others in office, he doesn’t have a home to go to. And seeing all his record are sealed, he doesn’t want us to know what he is or where he came from. Funny how none of you liberals seem to think there is anything WRONG with this person.

          • Sand_Cat

            Pretty much everything you said about Bush – other than his being a citizen – is false, and that’s irrelevant, because Obama is, and there never was any doubt about it among the rational and sane.
            If Bush’s vacations didn’t cost billions, his wars and tax cuts for billionaires are costing trillions, not to mention that little hiccup in the economy at the end of his term. Bush also cost us LIVES: lots and lots of them, most of them unnecessarily. He was also guilty of war crimes. The rest of your claims are pure bullshit. Maybe we’re blinded to Obama’s faults – such as they are – by what is far wronger with most of his critics, who – like you – are completely out of touch with reality, filled with malice and hatred, and about as ignorant as it’s possible to be..

          • porter

            hey ken what dope are you snorting, popping, drinking, or shooting up. Because man you need rehab bad. The female senator from his home state that is if you consider Ha. as a state in this union; stated on the record that his birth record were AND ARE REAL’ that guess his mom damn sure did give birth to him there. I guess that would be his home, course their the Chi. White House you know the one that him and his family has in Chi. didn’t here they sold it . look a marriage Lic. plus college transcripts and records plus tax records that he release. What kind of records do you want . Maybe you want to know when he and his wife make love .Like I say whatever drugs you be doing; do yourself a favor maaan and get help we don’t want to read about you in the obits and for God sake stop looking at fox news. I know it will be hard but as we say one day at a time

    • AnimeJoe

      The funny thing is, even if there were 70 Republicans in the Senate they still wouldn’t be able to get the 67 votes needed to convict. I mean, Clinton was guilty of his ‘crimes’ and yet there were still some Republican defections when it came time to convict. Plus, the Republican wave brought in more GOP moderates than anything else, thus risking a higher rate of defections.

      I just don’t see people like John McCain and Rand Paul (with his 2016 presidential aspirations) voting to convict. We know Ted Cruz and his BFF Mike Lee would probably vote to convict, but the wild cards would be Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio.

  • howa4x

    Republicans won’t impeach Obama. That is the kind of talk you hear from a party out of power. Now they have 2 years to prove to the country that they can govern and not just filibuster to stop legislation. They can’t shut down the government and they have to prove they are rational, and not a party of religious fanatics and lunatics. Impeachment would grind the government to a halt, and tie up the house and spark national outrage by not just democrat but worse yet moderate republicans and independents, who are giving republicans a chance to prove their policies are better. So I doubt the establishment republicans that fought off the tea party in the primaries would let that happen.

    • AnimeJoe

      Many moderate Republican senators wouldn’t even provide the votes needed
      to convict and remove Obama from office. That’s a reality that the far
      right wing has to deal with. I can already think of half a dozen GOP
      senators who wouldn’t vote to convict, so impeachment and removal from office will forever remain a Tea Party wet dream and nothing more.


    Oh my, it’s the other side.

    It’s where they stay.

    The idiotic liberals, they stay here.

    Stinks in here, I’m outa here…

    • porter

      Hey you black uncle t or white that don’t matter can’t tell by photo but you know what you sure do have a big head and no neck

  • porter

    hey you black or uncle T or white can’t tell from photo

    • Sand_Cat

      Yeah, but we can tell what you are.

  • The_Magic_M

    > ordering IRS audits of persons who opposed Nixon’s policies and were on his “enemies list”

    This is exactly what the (still slightly moderate) right-wing is accusing Obama of, without any evidence whatsoever, of course.
    The Tea Party, OTOH, actually believes that “being unpopular” or “doing stuff we don’t like” are actual grounds for impeachment. Or a simple propaganda list of alleged “scandals” (Solyndra, Fast & Furious, Benghaaaaaaazi etc.) that never amounted to anything under Congressional scrutiny, yet serve as some kind of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” meme.
    This was all fun and giggles when it was merely propaganda to win an election but becomes dead serious when Teabaggers start believing in their own propaganda lies.
    And they would soon find out that despite the perceived “unpopularity” of the President, an attempt to impeach him on such shaky foundations would quickly backfire, both politically and on the streets.

    I totally expect that if Hillary wins in 2016, 2017 will see impeachment demands based on the fictional “Clinton murder victims”. Pandora’s box seems wide open.

  • musicman495

    To further clarify the stupidity of the Clinton impeachment, Clinton was impeached for testimony in a disposition in a civil case THAT WAS DROPPED, and the final vote in the Senate was not even a SIMPLE MAJORITY, let alone a two-thirds majority: 45 For, 55 Against.