WASHINGTON – Minutes after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace and left the White House in August 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as president and sought to heal a traumatized nation, declaring “our long national nightmare is over.”
After President Donald Trump’s acquittal Wednesday after his rancorous impeachment trial in the Senate, a similar attempt at reconciliation or closure is difficult to imagine.
Americans are instead left with toxic images from Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, with the president refusing to shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand, and Pelosi later ripping up the text of Trump’s speech in disgust.
A nation stewing with partisan fury has grown angrier, with Democrats bitter over a president they believe got away with abusing his office and Republicans incensed that he was impeached at all. But while the proceedings swung almost entirely — and predictably — along partisan lines, those at the center of the maelstrom believe their party emerged victorious, exciting passion among their core constituencies.
“The politics in America are so polarized right now that I think both sides probably think they’ve done well politically,” said Tad Devine, who served as a senior adviser to three Democratic presidential campaigns. “They’re talking to entirely different audiences.”
The lack of a consensus has left the long-term lessons of this impeachment unsettled, at least until Trump and Republican lawmakers face the voters in November, and perhaps beyond that.
Nixon resigned before he was impeached over the Watergate scandal after public opinion turned against him and senior Republican senators warned they would vote to remove him from office if he did not leave first. In 1999, President Bill Clinton survived impeachment, publicly apologized, and saw his popularity rise as Americans largely decided he should not be removed for lying about an affair with a White House intern.
But Democrats paid a price the following year when Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, lost the presidential election to George W. Bush by a razor-thin margin ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
“In the Nixon case, the president left office … because of a national bipartisan sense that he should,” said Timothy Naftali, the founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif. “So there was a resolution of the scandal, as much as you can have in a complex republic. There was a consensus he needed to be removed before the end of his term. That consensus doesn’t exist today.”
No president before Trump has withstood an impeachment trial and then gone on to seek re-election. That gives Americans a chance to weigh in more directly but it also widens the political and social divisions that have defined the turbulent Trump presidency.
“What’s at stake is not just Trump’s re-election or the future of the Republican Party,” said William Howell, a University of Chicago professor who has written extensively about executive power. “It’s about Congress’ ability to check presidential power.”
Historians, constitutional scholars and Democratic lawmakers said Trump’s acquittal in the Senate has almost certainly weakened the authority of Congress to oversee and provide a check on the executive branch. Even if Trump isn’t re-elected, future presidents are likely to cite his precedent in refusing to honor congressional subpoenas, blocking witnesses and evidence, without consequence.
Not only did the stonewalling thwart House investigators during the impeachment inquiry, but the Trump administration has also regularly declined to attend routine oversight hearings in Congress.
“Unfortunately, yes, that’s the precedent and everybody seems to love precedents more than they love laws,” said Brenda Wineapple, author of “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation.” “Suspending the issue of right and wrong, when people get away with things, it’s incentive to do it again.”
With the 2020 campaign now in full swing, the partisan impeachment votes gave Trump and his allies another example of malign establishment forces on the left trying to thwart him. And it gave frustrated Democrats around the country another reason to seek his ouster at the ballot box in November.
Trump reached a record 49% job approval rating in a Gallup poll released this week. But he remains the only president who has never won a majority of public approval, showing his appeal has clear limits.
Politics don’t always follow a straight line. Ford believed America would be better off putting Nixon’s crimes in the rearview mirror, and he issued a controversial pardon for the scandalized president a month after Nixon resigned.
In doing so, Ford may have tamped down the acrimony. But he was not rewarded. Voters turned him out in 1976, sending Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who campaigned as an outsider, to the White House.