- To drum up support for President Donald Trump’s impeachment, congressional Democrats have taken a page out of the Watergate playbook and will hold a series of televised hearings on the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings in the Russia probe.
- If history is any indication, Congress is well positioned to take on the president.
- A higher percentage of people support impeaching Trump now than the percentage of adults who supported impeaching President Richard Nixon at the beginning of the Watergate hearings in 1973.
- Polling data also shows that independent sentiment is a key driver of overall public sentiment. Independent support for Trump’s impeachment right now is twice what it was for Nixon’s at this time in 1973.
- House Democrats are clamoring to have Mueller testify before Congress about his findings.
- One former senior Justice Department official who worked closely with Mueller when he was FBI director characterised his report and his public statement to INSIDER as “Mueller, in his own way and as loudly as he legally could, shouting from the rooftops that Congress needs to act.”
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When President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey two years ago, lawmakers and historians said the move echoed the beginnings of the Watergate scandal.
Trump’s actions since then – publicly smearing the former special counsel Robert Mueller and the news media, trying repeatedly to have Mueller removed, urging witnesses not to cooperate with investigators, and withholding documentary evidence and testimony – have only fuelled the comparisons to former President Richard Nixon.
Now, Congress is taking a page out of the Watergate playbook too.
Democratic leaders say they won’t impeach Trump unless there is widespread public support for the move. Accordingly, they have planned a series of televised hearings to educate viewers on Mueller’s findings and drum up support for Trump’s impeachment.
More people support impeaching Trump now than supported impeaching Nixon at the outset of the Watergate hearings
The hearings begin on June 10. The first person to testify will be John Dean, Nixon’s former White House lawyer who became the star witness against him. Dean is expected to recall to Congress – and the public – the lengths that Nixon’s White House went to obstruct justice and prevent witnesses from testifying during the Watergate investigation.
Dean’s hearing, ironically, will come as the Trump White House also directs current and former officials not to cooperate with congressional oversight inquiries.
If history is any indication, Congress is better positioned now to take on the president than it was during Watergate.
A higher percentage of people support impeaching Trump now than the percentage of adults who supported impeaching Nixon at the beginning of the Watergate hearings in 1973.
By June of that year, as the televised hearings had just kicked off, public support for Nixon’s impeachment was at just 19%, according to Gallup polling data obtained by the Washington Post.
Comparatively, in a CNN poll conducted last week, 41% of respondents said they support impeaching Trump.
By the time Nixon resigned in August 1974, 58% of US adults supported his impeachment. And as the Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, much of the shift in public sentiment during Nixon’s presidency could be attributed to independents.
Twenty-seven per cent of Democratic adults supported impeaching Nixon in June 1973, compared to 71% in August 1974, according to Gallup. Among Republican adults, 6% supported impeaching Nixon in June 1973, and 31% supported his impeachment in August 1974.
In that time period, the number of independents who wanted Nixon impeached jumped from 18% to 55%. Moreover, the rising support for impeachment among independents closely mirrored support for the move among adults overall.
Independent support for Trump’s impeachment is twice what it was for Nixon’s at this time in 1973
That trend appears to be holding now as well.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in April found that 37% of Americans support launching impeachment proceedings while 56% oppose it. Among independents, those numbers are 36% and 59%, respectively.
In other words, the data shows that independent support for Trump’s impeachment right now is twice what it was for Nixon’s at this time in 1973.
The public’s view of Trump is also likely affected by its view of the Mueller report.
A Quinnipiac poll from early May found 76% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats wrongly believed Mueller cleared Trump of “any wrongdoing.” Overall, 38% of Americans thought Mueller had completely exonerated Trump, despite the fact that Mueller’s team specified that its report “does not exonerate” the president.
But just 3% of respondents in a CNN poll said they’d actually read Mueller’s entire report, and congressional Democrats say that’s a big part of why they want Mueller to testify, even if it’s just to read his conclusions out loud.
The public may need to hear Mueller’s findings ‘from Mueller’s mouth’
“If he testifies before Congress, whether in public or in private, that will be significant because it will allow him to detail the extraordinary amount of evidence against Trump that he collected,” Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School, told INSIDER. “Although he won’t go ‘beyond’ what’s in his report, what’s in his report is sufficiently damning that hearing it directly from Mueller’s mouth will help alter the public discourse.”
Mueller declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” in the obstruction case, citing DOJ guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted. But the former special counsel laid out an extensive roadmap of evidence against Trump, painting a damaging portrait of a White House under siege and a president whose efforts to thwart the investigation were unsuccessful largely because his own advisers refused to carry out his orders.
Though prosecutors didn’t decide whether or not to charge Trump, they highlighted two things of note in the report, which Mueller reiterated during his news conference. First, the constitutional remedy for accusing a sitting president of wrongdoing lies with Congress. Second, the president is not immune from criminal prosecution once he leaves office.
One former senior DOJ official, who worked closely with Mueller when he was FBI director, characterised the report and his public statement to INSIDER as “Mueller, in his own way and as loudly as he legally could, shouting from the rooftops that Congress needs to act.”
“Mueller isn’t [Whitewater independent counsel] Ken Starr,” the former senior official added. “He’s not a showman, he’s a prosecutor. He got the evidence, he laid out all the facts, and he did the heavy lifting. Now, he’s basically saying to Congress: the ball’s in your court. Start the impeachment process.”
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