Marty Meehan — University of Massachusetts president and longtime Massachusetts congressman — figures impeachment will be a highly partisan and deeply divisive affair.
He makes that prediction not from an academic ivory tower, but from the perspective of a man who has been deep in the trenches of an impeachment battle. He was a member of the House Judiciary Committee when it was considering whether to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998.
For Meehan, the standoff last week between House Republicans and the Intelligence Committee — which shut down testimony for several hours — was a sign of President Trump’s ability to push the GOP to go on the attack, regardless of the facts of the investigation.
“The fact that the president complained that they weren’t doing enough and they responded to his complaining that they weren’t doing enough tells us the direction this is going to go,” Meehan said. “I’m shocked at their behavior.”
Of course, Trump has arrived at the prospect of impeachment on completely different grounds than Clinton. Clinton’s alleged “high crime” was lying under oath about a sexual relationship; Trump is under investigation for threatening to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless it agreed to investigate a political rival, former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his son.
This is more comparable, Meehan suggested, to the impeachment inquiry that forced Richard M. Nixon from office in 1974 — though Meehan believes it may be even worse.
One similarity between the Trump and Clinton impeachment inquiries, though, could prove to be that they play out along partisan lines. Like many observers, Meehan anticipates that the Democratic House will ultimately vote to impeach Trump and the Republican-led Senate will decline to remove him from office.
Before any of that, though, there’s a process that is still in its early stages. The current closed-door hearings will eventually give way to open hearings that will allow the public to make its own judgments about the charges and the evidence against Trump. For Nixon, in the 1970s, televised hearings were devastating as a rapt public heard about Oval Office conduct it found distinctly unbecoming.
Meehan points out that in Clinton’s case, the effect was different. His support grew, as the public heard more about the allegations against him. Meehan, and most other Democrats, voted against Clinton’s impeachment.
“At this point in the process in the ’70s, I don’t think anyone thought Nixon could be impeached. So I think the public hearings have a role to play,” Meehan said. “I think there will be a consensus that his behavior is unacceptable and illegal.”
In some sense, this proceeding will be a trial for Congress itself. Is Congress up to this?
“I think Congress has become in many ways dysfunctional and it’s a debate about the process not the facts,” Meehan said. “But certainly I would hope the Congress would condemn what the president has done in a robust nonpartisan way.”
I’m not counting on that, and neither is Meehan.
Trump’s supporters have already seized on the “process’’ of impeachment, implicitly acknowledging that they don’t have a strong case on the merits. Meanwhile, there are signs that Trump’s support in Washington has begun to fall apart as public officials alarmed by the president’s conduct refuse to be silenced by the While House. They went to Capitol Hill and told their stories, and there will be more of them.
Historically, impeachment inquiries have been bad for presidents, and I doubt this one will be an exception. Nixon was pushed out; Clinton survived, and his poll numbers rose, but history sees him as a diminished figure. For Trump, the inquiry shines a light on his conduct of foreign policy and his freewheeling exercise of executive power.
“I think people need to start having an intelligent discussion about whether we want presidents to behave this way,” Meehan said. “And what we’re going to do to prevent this from ever happening again.”