President Trump is only the fourth president to face a formal threat of congressional removal from office, but this time the historic ramifications reach from the Oval Office to the campaign trail.
Never before has the question of impeachment been raised during a presidential election year.
The impeachment fight is “quite literally unprecedented,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ nonpartisan scholarly newsletter covering American campaigns and elections.
“It is happening in advance of an election where the impeached president seems very likely to also be running for reelection,” he told The Washington Times. “The Nixon and Clinton impeachment battles happened during those presidents’ second terms and in advance of a midterm.”
As Washington braces for a potential impeachment vote before Christmas and a Senate trial next year, lawmakers also are eyeing their own reelection bids.
The White House is preparing for an impeachment trial. Mr. Trump, referring to the Republican-run upper chamber, said the proceedings will be on “our turf.”
The House has not made a formal announcement about moving forward with articles of impeachment, but Democrats are as close as they have ever been after advocating impeachment for one reason or another since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
After two weeks of public hearings on impeachment led by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Democrats quickly moved to the next phase of the process by setting up a hearing as soon as Congress returns from the Thanksgiving holiday recess.
The Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over drafting articles of impeachment, will convene a hearing Wednesday with constitutional scholars on what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” that warrant removing a president from office.
The Judiciary Committee hearings will give the president his first chance to respond to the accusations against him — something he complained about often during the investigation phase — but it doesn’t appear the Trump administration plans to play ball with Democrats in their arena.
Unlike either Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, the current president embroiled in impeachment has maintained a consistent — albeit low — approval rating in the low 40s despite the number of accusations and threats of impeachment against him.
“He’s just this brick that does not change with respect to how the public receives him,” said George Mason University political science professor Jennifer Victor. “And it’s given that incredible stability of those numbers, just like everything that we’ve seen over the last couple of years. It’s hard to imagine what we could see that would move those.”
Mr. Trump also defies comparisons to his modern impeachment predecessors.
Nixon resigned in August 1974 before the House could move forward with an impeachment vote.
Unlike Mr. Trump, Nixon faced bipartisan support for impeachment amid mounting revelations of his ties to and cover-up of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
When Nixon started his second term in January 1973, the Vietnam War was drawing to a close and the Republican president had strong support. His approval rating stood at an all-time high at 67%, according to Gallup poll data.
The Watergate scandal chipped away at his popularity, and his approval ratings dropped to 48% by April. After the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, when a series of top aides resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, the president’s approval rating plummeted to 27%.
By the time he resigned 10 months later, his approval rating hit 24%.
The proceedings against Mr. Clinton unfolded in an opposite manner from Mr. Nixon’s in nearly every way.
Mr. Clinton was impeached by the House in December 1998 on charges of perjury, on a 228-206 vote, and obstruction of justice, on a 221-212 vote. However, he wasn’t removed by the Senate, and he finished his second term in office in 2001.
Despite at least a few Democratic votes for impeachment and a few Republican votes against it, Mr. Clinton successfully painted the overall impeachment process to the public as a partisan attack on a Democratic president.
In fact, he gained popularity. Mr. Clinton’s approval rating went from the low 60s before the news broke of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky to 71% by the time the House approved the articles of impeachment.
The impeachment proceedings against Nixon and Mr. Clinton were similar in one way: they didn’t fare well for Republicans.
In the midterm elections in 1974, just three months after Mr. Nixon resigned, Democrats expanded their majorities in both chambers of Congress with a net gain of four seats in the Senate and 48 seats in the House.
The 1998 midterms, well into the impeachment process but a month before the formal votes, also were a boon for Democrats. They didn’t wrest away control of the House from Republicans but gained five seats and kept the Senate balance unchanged — contrary to historic patterns. Indeed, it was the first time the president’s party picked up House seats in a midterm election since 1934.
Still, Mr. Trump is in uncharted territory, and it is impossible to predict how the latest impeachment battle will turn out for Republicans by looking at the past.
Republicans are focusing their reelection efforts on 31 districts where Democrats hold congressional seats but where Mr. Trump received more votes in 2016. They are banking on the president driving a bigger turnout and better results than in the 2018 midterms.
“That is not to say presidential and down-ballot results will be identical. There will be variation, just perhaps not as much as one might have expected a generation ago,” Mr. Kondik said. “It’s possible that in our fast-moving political world, impeachment will be almost ancient history by the time Americans go to vote.”
To get a better sense of where the race for the House majority stands, one thing to watch is generic ballot polling, which, similar to 2018, has Democrats leading for now but could change as the election draws closer.
Republicans, on the other hand, are steering into the skid on impeachment.
The Trump war room has created a social media defense of the president during the public hearings, and the National Republican Congressional Committee and other right-leaning advocacy groups have been targeting swing-district Democrats for months. They hope to frame the moderates as failing to uphold their promises to reach across the aisle and be productive in a partisan Washington.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House aide, said the Democrats are the ones in political jeopardy from impeachment.
“Many of those Democrats, especially the ones who represent the 31 Trump-Pence districts from ‘16, they have to go back home and say, ‘I know I promised to lower your drug prices. I know I promised to keep this great economy going on. I know I promised trade deals like [the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal], but we’re busy impeaching a president,’ ” she said. “And they’re getting blowback for that.”