November 11th, 2019


Presidents and Impeachment: The Attempted Impeachment of Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon could read the writing on the wall. He remains the only President of the United States to resign from office. He did so before the House of Representatives could pass formal Articles of Impeachment against him, and when he resigned, the process became academic.

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Nixon's problems began with the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and the Nixon administration's attempted cover-up of its involvement. In January 1973, as Nixon began his second term, the burglars each went on trial separately before U.S. District Judge John Sirica. All either pleaded or were found guilty. In February 1973, the House of Representatives provided its Judiciary Committee with additional investigation authority to probe into the matter and that same month, the Senate voted 77–0 to create a special investigative committee to look into the scandal. The resultant Senate Watergate hearings, led by Sam Ervin, began in May 1973. The hearings were broadcast nationwide, and garnered significant public interest. Senators heard testimony that the president had approved plans to cover up administration involvement with the Watergate break-in, and learned of the existence of a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office.

On May 25, 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor for the federal investigation into possible Nixon administration ties to the Watergate burglary. As part of his investigation, in July of that year, Cox and Senator Earvin both asked Judge Sirica to issue a subpoena for several White House tape recordings and documents. Nixon refused to comply with the subpoenas, citing executive privilege. In an address to the nation on Watergate the following month, Nixon justified his refusal saying: "This principle of confidentiality of presidential conversations is at stake in the question of these tapes. I must and I shall oppose any efforts to destroy this principle, which is so vital to the conduct of this great office."

On August 9, the Senate committee filed suit in Federal District Court to force President Nixon to make the subpoenaed tapes available. In October, after the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Judge Sirica's subpoena, Nixon offered a compromise: the White House would prepare transcripts of the tapes. Senator John C. Stennis, a Democrat, and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, would be asked to listen to the tapes himself and make a make a comparison between the transcripts and the tapes. His authenticated version would be submitted to the court. The White House also wanted Stennis to paraphrase language that in its original form would, in his judgment, be embarrassing to the President. Nixon did not want the tapes entered into the public record verbatim, because they contained recordings of him and others using coarse language and racial slurs. Cox rejected Nixon's offer.

On October 20, Cox held a news conference to state that he would continue pressing in court for the tapes, even if it meant asking that Nixon be held in contempt if the White House refused to turn them over. Nixon then ordered that Cox be fired. Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to do so and were fired in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Ultimately Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox, acting on Nixon's direction.

There had been multiple resolutions calling for a presidential impeachment inquiry introduced in the House. The first of these to directly call for President Nixon's impeachment was introduced on July 31, 1973, by Robert Drinan. The resolution was effectively ignored by leaders of both parties. House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill justified his refusal to call a vote on the resolution because he believed that it would have been overwhelmingly defeated, and with most of the members already on record as having voted once against impeachment, it would have been extremely difficult to get them to change their minds later on.

On September 30, 1973, the American Civil Liberties Union became first national organization to publicly call for Nixon's impeachment and removal from office. They cited six civil liberties violations as grounds: "specific proved violations of the rights of political dissent; usurpation of Congressional war‐making powers; establishment of a personal secret police which committed crimes; attempted interference in the trial of Daniel Ellsberg; distortion of the system of justice and perversion of other Federal agencies."

The Judiciary Committee prepared a 718-page book, published in October 1973, on the origin of the impeachment power and the instances in which that power had previously been used by Congress. It gave a detailed description of Andrew Johnson's 1868 Senate impeachment trial.

After the "Saturday Night Massacre", NBC News anchor John Chancellor interrupted the network's prime time programming with a dire message, "The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history." The New York Times declared, "The nation is in the hands of a president overcome with dictatorial misconceptions of his constitutional authority." Outside the White House, marchers held signs saying "Honk for Impeachment"; car horns were heard non-stop, both day and night for two weeks. On October 23, House Democrats introduced 22 separate presidential impeachment related resolutions. Speaker of the House Carl Albert referred the multiple resolutions to the Judiciary Committee.

That same day, Nixon agreed to turn the subpoenaed tapes over to Judge Sirica. Nixon also reversed course on his decision to abolish the office of the special prosecutor, and a week later, Leon Jaworski was appointed to the post by the acting attorney general, Robert Bork.

Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned on October 10, and Speaker Albert called on Congress to take swift action on the nomination of Gerald Ford to fill the vice presidential vacancy. The 37-member House Judiciary Committee voted on October 30, to began consideration of possible impeachment of President Nixon by a 21–17 party-line vote, with all the committee's Democrats voting yes and all Republicans voting no.

On November 4, 1973, Senator Edward Brooke became the first congressional Republican to publicly urge President Nixon to resign. That same week, several newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal, The Denver Post, The Detroit News and The New York Times, published editorials also urging him to resign. Time magazine did so as well. As momentum for impeachment built up in Congress, Nixon held a live one-hour televised press conference on November 17 to defend himself. Nixon famously stated, "People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook."

But Nixon was not able to put Watergate behind him. Rumors began circulating that he was in poor mental and physical shape. In December 1973 Senator Barry Goldwater said in a private not, "I have reason to suspect that all might not be well mentally in the White House. This is the only copy that will ever be made of this; it will be locked in my safe."

The Judiciary Committee set up an impeachment inquiry staff. John Doar, formerly a civil rights attorney in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was hired in December 1973 to be the lead special counsel for the inquiry staff. He supervised a team which grew to 100 persons, including 43 attorneys, including future Massachusetts Governor William Weld and future Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. James D. St. Clair, a Boston lawyer, was named special counsel to President Nixon.

At the end of his January 30, 1974 State of the Union address, Nixon asked for an speedy resolution to any impeachment proceedings against him, so that the government could function fully effectively again. He told Congress that "one year of Watergate is enough" and asserted that he had no "intention whatever" of resigning.

On February 6, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee was authorized to launch a formal impeachment inquiry against the president. The House approved the resolution 410–4. The first task assigned to the attorneys on the inquiry staff by John Doer was to ascertain what constituted "high crimes and misdemeanors" – one of the grounds stated in Article II, Section 4 Of the Constitution for impeachment of the president. The staff produced a guide for the Judiciary Committee, a 64-page report, entitled "Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment." This report concluded that there did not need to be a criminal act on the part of the president to justify impeachment. It stated, "The framers did not write a fixed standard. Instead they adopted from English history a standard sufficiently general and flexible to meet future circumstances and events, the nature and character of which they could not foresee." It also concluded that impeachable offenses could fall into three categories: "Exceeding the powers of the office in derogation of those of another branch of government;" "Behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper functions and purpose of the office;" and "Employing the power of the office for an improper purpose or personal gain."

March 1, 1974, the federal district court grand jury that had been empaneled in July 1972 to investigate the Watergate break-in handed up indictments against seven Nixon advisors and aides, including H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and John Mitchell. Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski advised the grand jury that in his opinion the Constitution prohibited the indictment of an incumbent president, making the House Judiciary Committee the constitutionally appropriate body under the Constitution for examining evidence relating to the president's role in the Watergate conspiracy. Jurors recommended that that the material supporting the criminal case against him be turned over to the committee.

There had been allegations that, since taking office, Nixon had greatly underpaid what he owed the IRS in taxes. In December 1973 Nixon agreed to publicly release his returns covering the years 1969 through 1972. He also asked Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation to examine his personal finances. The committee's report was issued April 3, 1974. It found several problems with Nixon's returns, and stated that he owed $476,431 including interest for unpaid taxes over the four years.

On April 11, 1974, by a 33–3 vote, the Judiciary Committee subpoenaed 42 White House tapes of pertinent conversations. A week later, Jaworski obtained a subpoena from Judge Sirica ordering Nixon to release 64 additional recordings in connection with his case. Nixon initially wanted to refuse both requests completely, but on the advice of his counsel, James St. Clair, and others, it was decided that transcripts of the tapes—with certain passages edited or removed—would be turned over. Several profanity-laced discussions amongst his inner-circle had every use of profanity be replaced by "[EXPLETIVE DELETED]." Nixon then announced on national television that he was giving to the Judiciary Committee edited transcripts of the conversations they wanted, but he refused to hand over the tapes and other documents requested by Jaworski.

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The next day, April 30, some 1,250 pages of transcripts were made public. The Judiciary Committee, however, rejected Nixon's edited transcripts, saying that they did not comply with the terms of the subpoena. A few newspapers printed the transcripts in full, and two quickly produced paperback books contained the same, resulting in sales of over a million copies.

There were six special House elections in 1974 to fill vacant seats. Held between February and June, they provided the first broad test of public sentiment regarding the scandal-plagued Nixon administration. Democrats won five of these, each in a district previously represented by a Republican. One Democratic gain was Michigan's 5th district, which Gerald Ford had long held before becoming vice president.

The House Judiciary Committee opened its formal impeachment hearings against the President on May 9, 1974. The first twenty minutes were televised on the major U.S. networks, after which the committee switched to closed sessions for the next two months. On July 9, the Judiciary Committee released its own version of eight of the White House tapes that Nixon had previously issued his own transcript of. The Committee transcripts restored much of the potentially damaging statements that Nixon staffers had removed. On July 12 the Committee released its accumulated evidence on the case, which was 3,888 pages. Press Secretary Ziegler said that the president remained confident that the full House would not impeach. Statements from White House officials called the impeachment inquiry a "partisan witch-hunt" and the committee's proceedings were referred to as "a kangaroo court." Nixon also tried to draw attention away from the hearings by traveling to the Middle East and the Soviet Union in June. In Egypt he met with President Anwar Sadat, and later, he and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

Televised coverage of committee hearings resumed on July 24. The commercial broadcast networks televised the evening sessions while PBS broadcast the morning and afternoon sessions as well. On the afternoon of Friday, July 26, television viewers watched live as the first Article of Impeachment was read into the record against the President. Representative Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, said, "After reading the transcripts, it was sobering: the number of untruths, the deception and the immoral attitudes. By any standard of proof demanded, we had to bind him over for trial and removal by the Senate."

A Harris Poll showed that 53 percent of Americans supported Nixon's impeachment by the House. The same poll showed that 47 percent thought he should be convicted in a Senate trial and removed from office, 34 percent thought he should be acquitted and 19 percent were undecided. A Gallup Poll taken around the same time revealed that Nixon's favorability rating had fallen to 24 percent of the population.

On July 27, 1974, the Committee voted on the first article of impeachment. Over the course of four days, July 27–30, the Judiciary Committee debated five articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Three articles were approved by the Committee. Two others were rejected. They represented the first presidential impeachment recommendation in more than a century. They had bipartisan support. The articles adopted were:

Article I: On June 17, 1972, and prior thereto, agents of the Committee for the Re-election of the President committed unlawful entry of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, District of Columbia, for the purpose of securing political intelligence. Subsequent thereto, Richard M. Nixon, using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such illegal entry; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.

Article II: Using the powers of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposes of these agencies.

Article III: In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, contrary to his oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas. The subpoenaed papers and things were deemed necessary by the Committee in order to resolve by direct evidence fundamental, factual questions relating to Presidential direction, knowledge or approval of actions demonstrated by other evidence to be substantial grounds for impeachment of the President. In refusing to produce these papers and things Richard M. Nixon, substituting his judgment as to what materials were necessary for the inquiry, interposed the powers of the Presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives, thereby assuming to himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives.

The two articles rejected were

Article IV: In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, contrary to his oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and to the best of his ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, on and subsequent to March 17, 1969, authorized, ordered and ratified the concealment from Congress of the facts and the submission to Congress of false and misleading statements concerning the existence, scope, and nature of American bombing operations in Cambodia and derogation of the power of Congress to declare war.

Article V: In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, contrary to his oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and to the best of his ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, did receive emolument from the United States in excess of the compensation provided by law ... and did willfully attempt to evade the payment of a portion of Federal income taxes due and owing by him for the years 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1972.

Nixon hoped to fight the impeachment charges. He was described by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as "a man awake in his own nightmare". During a July 29 private meeting between House Minority Leader John Rhodes and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, Rhodes estimated that impeachment in the House would get as many as 300 votes, well more than the majority of 218 it needed, and Scott felt that there were 60 votes for conviction in the Senate.

On July 24, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in United States v. Nixon that all Nixon White House tapes, not just selected transcripts, must be released to the special prosecutor. Nixon released the tapes on August 5, 1974. A previously unknown conversation between the Nixon and Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972, only a few days after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices, proved that Nixon's assertion of having had no involvement in the coverup of the burglary was false. The tape, which became known as the ""smoking gun" tape, documented the initial stages of the coverup. It revealed Nixon and Haldeman meeting in the Oval Office and formulating a plan to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was involved. Nixon blamed this on a lapse of memory. Nixon said he would not step down, and said that that the process defined by the Constitution should play out.

During the late afternoon of August 7, 1974, Senators Goldwater and Scott and Representative Rhodes met with Nixon in the Oval Office and told him that his support in Congress had all but disappeared. Rhodes told the president that he would face certain impeachment when the articles came up for vote in the full House. Goldwater and Scott told the president that there were more than enough votes in the Senate to convict him. Goldwater later wrote that as a result of the meeting, Nixon "knew beyond any doubt that one way or another his presidency was finished".

Nixon met with Vice President Gerald Ford the following morning, August 8, to inform Ford of his intention to resign. He informed the nation of the decision that night. In that speech, Nixon said that by resigning, "I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America." He added, "I deeply regret any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision." On the morning of August 9, 1974, Nixon signed a letter of resignation addressed to Secretary of State Kissinger. His presidency officially ended at 11:35 am, when Kissinger received the letter.A short while later, Gerald Ford was sworn into office, declaring "our long national nightmare is over."

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Following President Nixon's resignation, the impeachment process against him was closed. On August 20, the House voted to accept the final Judiciary Committee report by a vote of 412 to 3. The 528‐page report was published on August 22. On September 8, 1974 President Ford granted Nixon a "full, free and absolute pardon" for all crimes that Nixon had "committed or may have committed or taken part in" as president.

Nixon proclaimed his innocence until his death in 1994. In the 1974 mid-term elections, Democrats won 49 House seats previously held by Republicans and increased their majority above the two-thirds mark. There were 93 freshmen representatives in the 94th Congress when it convened on January 3, 1975 (76 of them Democrats). Those elected to office that year later came to be known as "Watergate Babies".