On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
We’ve been here before. Three presidents in American history have faced impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives – and the Founding Fathers knew it would be a divisive, and deeply political, process.
We hear from local journalists who covered past impeachments, and presidential historians who will weigh in on how the political climate in the D.C. region has changed since the last time impeachment proceedings took over Washington.
Plus – what role do today’s media landscape and new communication technologies play in shaping the impeachment narrative? We’ll dive into the history of impeachment – and how locals feel like this round compares to the days of Nixon and Clinton.
This program was recorded at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads with a live audience. The views and opinions expressed by audience members are those of the individuals themselves and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Goodwin House Incorporated. Any comments made or views expressed are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.
Please note: WAMU 88.5 and wamu.org will be carrying live coverage of the impeachment hearings at noon on Thursday, November 21, 2019. Tune in for this special broadcast of The Kojo Nnamdi Show at 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock and Maura Currie
- David Priess Author, "How to Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives"; @DavidPriesss
- Jennifer Victor Associate Professor of Political Science, George Mason University; @jennifernvictor
- Scott Talan Assistant Professor, American University’s School of Communication; @talan
- Alexis Simendinger National Political Correspondent, The Hill; @ASimendinger
KOJO NNAMDIYou've tuned into the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has buried Washington in a flurry of hearings, headlines and tweets. And in the lead-up to an election year, it might be a while before things return to normal. So, this week, we're spending some time asking real Washingtonians what they're thinking about the big political moment unfolding in their backyard.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're at Goodwin House, a senior living facility in Falls Church, Virginia, to hear the memories of those who lived through past impeachments, and reflect on whether this one is really as different as it seems to feel. Joining me on the panel is David Priess. David is the author of "How to Get Rid of a President: (laugh) History's Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable or Unfit Chief Executives." He's also chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute. David, thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID PRIESSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJennifer Victor is an associate professor of political science at George Mason University. Jennifer, thank you for joining us.
JENNIFER VICTORPleasure to be here.
NNAMDIScott Talan is an assistant professor at American University's School of Communications. Scott, thank you for joining us.
SCOTT TALANKojo, thank you.
NNAMDIAnd I have to mention that WAMU is licensed to American University. Alexis Simendinger is a native of Washington, D.C. and has been a reporter in the capital since 1986. She's a national political correspondent for The Hill. Alexis, thank you for joining us.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGERIt's great to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIDavid, I'll start with you. How many times in history has a president been impeached?
PRIESSActual impeachment, that is the House of Representatives voting in a majority vote to indict the president on a charge, has happened twice, Andrew Johnson back in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1998. One person came very close to that, and that was, of course, Richard Nixon in 1974. He was about to be impeached and almost certainly removed when he decided to resign and take himself out of that process.
NNAMDIWhat exactly does impeachment mean, and what did the founding fathers intend when they wrote it into our Constitution?
PRIESSImpeachment and removal process -- and we lump those together, but they are two separate acts -- are meant to deal with an unfit president, a president who's doing harm to the actual fabric of the constitutional republic. The founders did not want this to be easy. They did not want the Congress to be able to remove the president because they disagreed with the president's policy, or they disagreed with the president's haircut, or some other reason that was not having to do with the actual governance of the country and following the laws and norms of the country.
PRIESSSo, they decided, let's put it into a body that is itself responsible to the American people in the next election, so that there is, in a sense, a check on the people doing the checking of the president. By a majority vote in the House of Representatives, a president can be impeached -- essentially indicted -- for treason, for bribery, or for that amorphous phrase you've heard, high crimes and misdemeanors, which I hope we'll talk about a bit.
PRIESSBut the idea being that if there is some harm to the country, if there is something that is being done that actually harms the institution of government, the president can be accused of that by the House of Representatives. Then the process would move into the United States Senate. They made it a high bar for removing the president on that charge. It has to be two-thirds of senators present to do that. That is exceptionally hard to do, and probably why it has not been done in our nation's history.
NNAMDISo, when we think about this trial, impeachment, we think about is supposed to be about law. But to what extent has it always been about law and not politics?
PRIESSLaw is a part of it, because it's in those very words we just mentioned, high crimes and misdemeanor. The word crime is there. But the founders explicitly did not want a president to be solely impeachable and removable for things that were in the criminal code, because they explicitly said, high crimes and misdemeanors, allowing other issues by which the president is deemed unfit for office to cause his removal.
PRIESSOne example that is often used is: what if the president were to simply leave the United States, move to another country and refuse to do his job? That is not criminal. There is nothing in the U.S. statute that says that it is illegal to move to another country and refuse to do your job.
PRIESSHowever, most of us would agree that that president should be removed, because he is not doing his duty under the Constitution. So, there must be a method for removing a president, even if it is not technically a crime.
NNAMDIWell, you wrote a book called "How to Get Rid of a President: History's Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable or Unfit Chief Executives." How difficult is it to impeach a president?
PRIESSThe founders did not intend it to be a process only brought out once every 500 years, the so-called nuclear option that you hear in political talk. They put it in the Constitution to be used in a case where the president should not serve out a full, four-year term because they are actually doing harm to the institutions of the country. Just because Congress has never voted to remove a president via the Senate does not mean that it should not happen.
NNAMDIWell, how else have we gotten rid of presidents in the past?
PRIESSYeah, I take a wide view of it in that book, where I look at all the ways that presidents have left office, and including even being undermined within office, to the point that they are in a sense removed in place by having some of their powers taken away from them. There are some historical cases of this, presidents who had Congress box them in so severely that they were not fully able to execute the powers and duties of the office.
PRIESSOf course, a president can leave office, unfortunately, the hardest way, which is they can die in office. As a country, I hope we all still agree that it is wrong to expedite the death of any president. (laugh) Thankfully, our country's history shows that the assassins of presidents are not people that become heroes. They are people that are other names are spoken with disdain, even if people politically disagreed with the president that was killed.
PRIESSBut you can also remove a president by not re-nominating them. And we seem to have forgotten that in modern American history. It's possible -- although there's some historical debate, Kojo, on this -- that Lyndon Johnson in 1968, he removed himself from the re-nomination process, saying he wanted to focus all of his energy on getting the United States out of Vietnam. But, secretly, he wanted to be nominated again. He was not, but since then, every president who has been in office that wanted to stay in office has been re-nominated by his party. That is not the way it always has been.
PRIESSBack in the 19th century, parties removed presidents by not re-nominating again when they thought that this person was not the best candidate they could offer. We seem to have lost that, but that is still a possibility, going forward.
NNAMDIAlexis Simendinger, you are born Washingtonian, and you've been a reporter here since the 1980s. What do you remember about the Nixon impeachment proceedings? Which took place before you were a reporter.
SIMENDINGERIt did take place before I was a reporter, but I have a vivid memory of this, because in the neighborhood that I lived in in Northwest Washington, many of the houses did not have air conditioning in the summer of 1974. And the windows were open. And this was appointment television. You know, you couldn't stream it. You couldn't TiVo it. You had to watch it in real time.
SIMENDINGERSo it was quite the drama, the Nixon impeachment hearings. It was certainly a drama for most of the public that did not know how this was going to go forward. And it had a lot of interesting bombshell testimony that we all remember and we relived in our videotapes thanks to CSPAN. And what I remember is walking down my street and being able to hear almost like it was stereo sound, the hearings during the day -- does anybody remember this -- during the day, coming loud and clear through the windows in the hot summer.
NNAMDIWe were kind of prepared for that by the Watergate hearings, which took place the year before, in 1973. We were used to be glued to the television set or listening to the radio for those hearings. I'd like to talk with Margaret Sullivan next. Margaret Sullivan, your husband was a foreign service officer during the Nixon era, and you were stationed in the Philippines. What was it like representing the United States while the country was caught up in an impeachment inquiry?
MARGARET SULLIVANWell, it was strange, partly because, as we've had such a good demonstration over the last few days, diplomats are apolitical, and so are their wives. We don't get paid, but we still work for the U.S. government. And we thank you for having sent us there. It was interesting. But you don't talk politics. You don't even really talk politics among yourselves. The thing that had happened in the Philippines was that martial law had been declared in 1972, because Marcos didn't want to step down from being president.
NNAMDIFerdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines.
SULLIVANThat's right. And so we were already living with this interesting political dynamic where we were. But as you both said, there was no -- it was slow newspapers. It was the Armed Forces Radio. We heard very little of the actual event. But Filipinos thought we were nuts. They couldn't figure out why we were making such a fuss, and why we were doing this. Wasn't this what politics was all about?
NNAMDIYeah, because they knew a little bit about corruption.
SULLIVANBut you get to the point where you have to answer some questions. And what I began to find that I would say when somebody said, why are you doing this, is that Americans have a line. We don't really know what that line is until we see it, but it is a combination of obstruction and lying and fiddling with American politics. I think the thing that was interesting there was that it was totally domestic politics, and he was not doing anything about the Philippines. We were overseas. We were simply outside observers.
NNAMDIBoth the Nixon and Clinton impeachment inquiries were focused on domestic events. That is not the case this time around. What ramifications do you think that has for people in the foreign service now, or representing the United States abroad in some capacity now?
SULLIVANI'm grateful I'm not doing it. (laugh) It would be very hard to keep your mouth shut if you felt the way some of us feel. There's one other thing I would like to say. This one now reminds me much more of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which I was old enough to be a part of. My husband and I courted to it.
NNAMDIIn the 1950s.
SULLIVAN(laugh) In the 1950s. And this reminds me much more of that because there is a nastiness about it. And I guess because we also want to say, have you no shame.
NNAMDIThere's a Roy Cohn quality about these hearings. (laugh)
NNAMDILike to hear now from Barbara Morris. You've been following the Trump impeachment inquiry very closely on TV, and that you've watched all the hearings. You also followed the Nixon hearings very closely on TV. But you told our producer that you have a lot less guilt about it this time around. Why were feeling guilty then, and what's changed?
BARBARA MORRISI felt guilty then because I was raised to believe that daytime TV watching was a mortal sin. (laugh) You know, my mother and father were thinking of things like “Stella Dallas” and “Guiding Light.” But I had that so engrained in me that when I was glued to the radio during the Watergate hearings, I felt such guilt. But in order to assuage that guilt, I decided I better do some housework. And so I brought the ironing board, and I brought it in front of the screen. And I ironed everything in the house. And when I ran out of normal ironing, I ironed my husband's jockey shorts. (laugh) I ironed shoelaces, (laugh) and...
NNAMDIYou ironed your husband's shoe laces?
MORRISI ironed everybody's shoelaces. (laugh) And I will comment on that, also, the fact that I realized how silly this was. And I thought it was funny and I wrote an article, a humorous article about it. And I sent it to the Washington Post. At that time, the Style section was called Panorama, and Hal Willis was the editor. And I know his name because he sent me a little blue post-it that said, beautiful, $50 is in the mail. So, that was the start of my professional writing career. It was the first time I got paid for anything. So, Watergate, to me, has a lot of meaning. (laugh)
NNAMDICan you imagine how much that $50 would be worth today?
MORRISOh, huge. (laugh)
NNAMDII'd like to talk next with Rita Siebenaler (sounds like) because Rita Siebenaler, you were living in Germany during the Nixon impeachment inquiry. How did you get your news about what was unfolding here in Washington?
RITA SIEBENALERWell, we got the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which had a lag, time-wise. And, occasionally, we could get a five-day-old International Herald Tribune. Years later, of course, we read article after article after article and books and even movies, and felt that we filled in all of our gaps. But that was a time when we didn't have a 24/7 news cycle. And having the print available and being able to reflect a lot about it, having the time and the silence, I think, was helpful.
RITA SIEBENALERPolitical pundits, talking heads, had not yet become a profession. And that was certainly different. In the Clinton hearings, of course, we had many more political commentators. And it introduced a whole new vocabulary, particularly on family life. Children were asking questions about sexual matters that probably parents would not have wanted to get into at that time in their life.
RITA SIEBENALERThe first hearing was more about criminal and thuggish behavior with Nixon. The second one, to me, was more about immorality. Today, I think we have a much more serious situation, where the threat to our integrity of elections and the threat to our standing in the world and the national security threat is supreme. And we get so much noise, so much noise that I think many people retreat into their cave of preconceived notions, and aren't really thoughtful about what they're hearing and reading.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. We'll be right back.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you from the Goodwin House, a senior retirement center in Falls Church, Virginia, giving you a brief history of impeachment. Joining us is David Priess. He is the author of "How to Get Rid of a President: History's Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable or Unfit Chief Executives.' He's also chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute. Jennifer Victor is an associate professor of political science at George Mason University. Scott Talan is an assistant professor at American University School of Communication.
NNAMDIAnd Alexis Simendinger is a native of Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter in the capitol since 1986. She's a national political correspondent for The Hill. Alexis, can you tell us about the first time you covered an impeachment?
SIMENDINGERWell, I was covering the White House. I was covering President Clinton. And we, as reporters covering the White House beat, understood that President Clinton had been under investigation for a long period of time. So, when I was covering Bill Clinton, what I remember was the Monica Lewinski story, which was about an intern, broke in a very unusual way.
SIMENDINGERWe were just hearing one of the guests here talking about how our news media had changed. And by 1998, the Drudge Report was an online outlet that actually published something that Newsweek was working hard to report out with the most responsible facts, but had hesitated. And Drudge went ahead and talked about the story that Newsweek was working on.
SIMENDINGERAnd what I remember very distinctly is, you know, running around like we all do to talk to the president's advisors and senior officials, and they were denying, denying, denying. This was false, false, false, and were actually ferociously angry about it that reporters were even asking, could this be correct, because the president was denying, denying this to his staff, and continued to deny it for seven months, denied it to his family, to his wife, to his friends.
SIMENDINGERAnd, later on, what I remember is that some of those same officials that I interviewed, who were so upset that we would even ask the question, waited until the very end, when the president was acquitted, and then left because they were still so disturbed that the president had, you know, lied and undermined his agenda and had put so many Americans in such a tough position.
NNAMDIWhat I remember is that when the special counsel was first appointed to investigate Whitewater, I was in the Caribbean, watching a cricket match. And some guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, what's going on with Whitewater? And I said, what's Whitewater? And that's how I found out about that investigation. (laugh)
NNAMDIRita Siebenaler, I'd like to return to you for a moment. You were a mother by the time the Clinton impeachment inquiry rolled around. How did that change the way you engaged with the coverage of the hearings?
SIEBENALERIt made me want to limit the exposure of my children, so that I was listening to it repeats late at night, along with my husband. And there certainly were issues we did not want to get into with our kids.
NNAMDIDo you talk to your grandchildren about the current political climate?
SIEBENALEROh, yes. They are mightily tuned in, and my local grandchildren are quite the experienced demonstrating participants, and have very strong opinions.
NNAMDIDo you think young people today engage with politics differently than your children did, or even the way you did when you were a teenager?
SIEBENALERWell, I would have never thought of demonstrating as a young person, even though we talked politics at the dinner table when I was a child. But young people today are particularly galvanized around the issue of global warming and climate crisis. And so many of them have been forced to become engaged on sensible gun control, as well as political items.
NNAMDIAlexis, what makes these impeachment proceedings different from the Clinton and Nixon cases?
SIMENDINGERWell, there's a couple of things that we've already mentioned some of them here, all the smart residents here. First of all, national security, the feature of the allegations against the president, and obviously, we haven't gotten to the point of indictment, but the fact pattern that the Democrats are assembling about national security is unusual. We have not had impeachment inquiry that focused exclusively on that in addition to domestic politics. So, that combination is unusual.
SIMENDINGERAlso, as some of you have mentioned, the different kind of news environment we're living in, I look back and think about the Clinton impeachment, if Bill Clinton had had Twitter and Facebook and the social media environment, which allowed no pause -- it allows no pause for reflection, really, and it moves so fast that the defenders and the prosecutors have to move just as fast, that would've been quite different, that set of circumstances.
SIMENDINGERIn addition, the allegations, the distinction between personal behavior, which became President Clinton's salvation, he was really benefitted by a couple of things. One is the very good economy, which persuaded the American public that he was -- helped to persuade them that he was doing a good job as president. And, also, the American public was not surprised to learn that President Clinton -- former governor of Arkansas who had long had allegations of womanizing -- that he had stepped out on his marriage. What surprised them was that he was so cavalier about it with an intern in a hallway off the Oval Office. That was shocking to many people and disgusting to many.
SIMENDINGERAnd so, it's interesting to watch the politics of this, because President Trump is really turning to a very strong political base, which is very similar. But it's a much more ferocious political environment, where the campaign-style assaults, both from the Democratic side and the Republican side are unending 24 hours a day.
NNAMDIJennifer, I'd like to hear from you on this. How has the political climate in Washington changed, as Alexis has been describing, since the last impeachment proceedings?
VICTORThanks. Yeah, I want to add two points to the excellent points that Alexis has already raised. And one is building off this point that the political environment that we have in Washington today is highly polarized on partisan terms. And when we talk about polarization in politics, we tend to think of it -- as political scientists, we tend to think of it as a top-down phenomenon, meaning that the political elites, the elected officials are much more polarized than what you see in the general public.
VICTORIf you think of there being sort of a median Republican and a median Democrat, what we have found is that the Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have to the left. So, both have moved apart. That's the effect of polarization. I'm gesticulating here, for the radio viewers that can't see this. But the right has moved more than the left has moved to create this space.
VICTORAnd it creates this sort of psychological, some political scientists call it sort of an affective polarization where you wind up caring more about -- you hold your partisanship as this very strong identity in the way that you do your gender or your race or your religion. It's this core part of your identity as your party ID. And in your political decision making you wind up reacting more to hoping that the other side loses than that your own side wins. We were polarized in the 1990s during the Clinton Administration. The polarization that we see now in the United States, in fact, started in the early 1970s. But it's now much more advanced as a sort of condition of society than it was then.
VICTORAnd the second thing that I would raise that's different now than it was then is that -- or different from any previous impeachment scandal that we've had in the history of the United States, is that this is President Trump's first term. We've never tried to impeach a president in their first term before. Nixon was in his second term, Clinton was in his second term, Johnson was in his second term back in the 1800s. And being in the first term changes the political dynamics of this relatively significantly.
VICTORSo, we find ourselves in this somewhat bizarre scenario now, where we might, I think -- actually it's perhaps likely -- that we'll wind up impeaching a president, not removing him from office, and then re-electing him, which would be very bizarre. And...
PRIESSBut perfectly situated for the times we're in.
VICTORFor the polarizing times, absolutely. So, that's really different about today. It wouldn't just be bizarre and unique. It would also have a damaging effect, I think, on American political institutions and norms in a way that is disappointing.
NNAMDIDavid, before I got to Scott, one other distinction about the polarization, here: I remember Richard Nixon being referred to as a polarizing figure. When you compare that to what we're experiencing today, what stands out?
PRIESSThere's one key factor that is underemphasized between Nixon and Trump. Nixon was a polarizing figure. He liked combat in the political arena. He liked to create enemies. He even made a list of them, so that he could punch against them and get punched back. He would've been devastating on Twitter. (laugh) I think it's probably good that we did not have that technology then.
PRIESSBut you have to remember that Richard Nixon was an icon of the Republican Party. He had served in the military. He had been a U.S. representative. He had been a senator. He had been a vice president for eight years. For many young members of Congress, Richard Nixon was the Republican Party.
PRIESSContrast that with Donald Trump now. Donald Trump, until a few years ago, had given much more money to Democratic candidates than to Republican candidates. His political philosophy, if he had one, was much more aligned with traditional Democratic policies than what were then Republican policies. He hijacked a splintered Republican Party in 2016 and was elected president. Yes, the polarization within the country has driven people to rally behind Donald Trump in the Congress in a way that students of checks and balances between the branches of government would not have expected, given some of his assaults on those very checks and balances.
PRIESSBut if it comes to a divisive impeachment procedure, including a senate trial, you have to wonder whether those very representatives now -- who do not see Donald Trump as the history of the Republican Party -- if they will find that as perhaps courage to go forward and say yes, he is a Republican in name, but he does not represent everything that I represent, or that my constituents believe in. So, maybe we can vote him out of office and get in somebody who is more traditional in the Republican Party, like a Mike Pence, who would become president.
PRIESSIt would not be Hillary Clinton. It would not overturn the 2016 election, as the narrative says. But Mike Pence, the vice president, would become president if Donald Trump is removed. And if it comes down to it, Kojo, I think a lot of young Republican representatives, and even senators, might say, having Mike Pence in office in 2020 is probably a better option than Donald Trump.
NNAMDIWe just heard David mention, Scott Talan, that Richard Nixon would've been devastating on Twitter. (laugh) But how has social media shaped this impeachment differently than we've seen in the past?
TALANWe can't really know, because we have nothing to base it on. The prior impeachments, if there were a dinner party, had three guests: Congress, the president and the news media. Now, we have a fourth guest: social media. And I would argue social media is probably more powerful than any one of those individual elements, because it's made up of millions and millions of people in this country and billions of people on the planet with their own sort of voice and opinion and comments that influences things. Including what happened last week, where during testimony Trump tweets. Adam Schiff takes that tweet live and says, the president just tweeted. What's your reaction? I mean, that's meta media, never seen before.
SIMENDINGERWell, I was just going to mention in response to what David was saying, taking back to the idea of where Congress is. In the reporting that we're doing at The Hill, and many of my colleagues are doing in Washington, one of the things that we come across a lot -- which is so interesting -- is that, as David was saying, Donald Trump is the Republican Party now. He has control of the Republican Party in a way that stuns mainstream Republicans and really sets them back on their heels.
SIMENDINGERBut he has sufficient control over the districts that are so important to his and their own reelections, that they're very loathe to cross that line to reject or criticize the president. Not just because their own electorates in their districts and red states might take it out on them, but that they would encourage being primaried, or that the president himself would utilize his tools, including social media, to go after them and to denigrate them.
SIMENDINGERSo, unless public polling shifts dramatically, President Trump is not a popular president in terms of the way Bill Clinton was during impeachment. On the day that Bill Clinton was impeached, he had the highest job approval, 73 percent, which was the voters' way of kind of saying, you're going in the wrong direction, here, right? That was their message to Congress. President Trump has never really crept above 50 percent, and his job approval remains very stable.
SIMENDINGERSo, unless we see something dramatically shift, I understand, from talking to Republicans, however much they personally are exhausted by this president and all of the elements of the first three years, they are not going to shift their political allegiance.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We'll be right back.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you from the Goodwin House, a senior living center in Falls Church, Virginia, giving you a brief history of impeachment. Scott Talan, how do you see social media fueling the political partisanship that we're now experiencing?
TALANPart of it is that we follow the people, for the most part, that we agree with. Whatever platform you're on -- and I need to remark, Kojo, that for all of Trump's success on Twitter, that's the only social media platform he's on, okay. And his other main source is cable news. So, he's got an old school medium, cable news, mostly Fox, a little bit of CNN, if he wants to get angry. And then he moves that to Twitter. So, other than that, he controls that with 50-plus million followers.
TALANBut for everyone else, they're entering the debate. They're giving facts and tidbits. They're weighing in. They're asking questions, which could -- a lawmaker that's on the impeachment query, Kojo, could say, hey, this is a good question that's on Twitter. Let's ask it. So, there are a lot more voices that are potentially in the mix. And the partisanship is because we follow those that we agree with. No one wants to hear disagreeable things all the time. It's this echo chamber.
NNAMDIJennifer, David, what really broke the Nixon inquiry was a tape, where we could hear Nixon's complicity in the Watergate break-in. Is there a similar smoking gun here, a firm indication of quid pro quo?
VICTORIt's honestly very difficult for me to imagine what evidence or witness could come out at this point that would significantly move the needle. Because there have been a number of bombshells, both through the public hearings over the last two weeks and at other points, as the scandal has sort of developed.
VICTORAnd to the point that Alexis was making earlier, if you go on the internet and you just Google President Trump approval ratings and you look at the trend line, it is the lack of variance among the approval and disapproval members for President Trump are just remarkable. Especially if you compare that to previous presidents in the modern era where it just hovers -- his approval rating just hovers around 40 percent-ish.
TALANNow, the other thing a partisanship, Kojo, is go back to the 1800s, the media was partisan. The news media was partisan, so we're back, we've gone full circle now, you know. I watch CNN for the most part. Why? MSNBC's too liberal, and Fox is too conservative. CNN is the best I can get in the middle on cable news. I don't know if we're progressing or digressing, but partisanship is nothing new when it comes to news media. Now we have it with social media, and that means us, because humans are social.
NNAMDILet's hear from Margaret Sullivan.
SULLIVANI have a question for you. For Nixon, there was not even cable news. And I think the fact of cable news has -- it wasn't even public radio then or public television. And I think the fact that we all heard, even overseas, the same two or three news programs, and we had real confidence in the same two or three journalists -- I'm old enough to think about Murrow -- but...
SULLIVAN...or Cronkite, exactly...
SULLIVAN...and that made a huge difference.
PRIESSMargaret, you're right and the word is trust. There was trust in that time, in the news media. There was ABC, CBS, NBC. Fox didn't exist. Roger Ailes, at the time, was in the Nixon Whitehouse. He hadn't even thought of Fox yet. So, today, we get so many sources that are so varied, that it's really hard to capture attention.
PRIESSI sat in Clyde's in Alexandria yesterday watching Ambassador Sondland, and even with the sound off, I was fascinated, showing text messages and emails, private, that are now public on a screen. Those are social media. And now these private conversations you would never expect to be glimpsed everywhere are there for us.
TALANYeah, one thought on the smoking gun is, in the Nixon era, you had people listening to the tape. People heard Nixon's voice complicit in obstruction of justice and abuse of power. We don't have that now, because it's already priced in. We already know what the president did. Essentially, by releasing the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president, he released a photo of him holding the smoking gun, winking at the camera. (laugh) So, now, we're looking for another smoking gun. What more do you need than that?
TALANWhat's interesting to me, Kojo, is, in fact, this whole Ukraine scandal is new. In the spring, everyone thought there were impeachment proceedings going on about the Russian interference in the election, the Trump collusion -- not criminal conspiracy, Robert Mueller found, but the collusion with the Russians. They were aware of what the Russians were doing and encouraging it. And then the obstruction of justice efforts that occurred during the investigation, and people thought, this is it. This is what is moving toward impeachment.
TALANAnd then we had the smoking gun that emerged about Ukraine. That has moved the process forward. Has it moved the numbers, as we've just heard? It doesn't necessarily move the political numbers in the polling much, but it has given some momentum to this impeachment and removal process.
NNAMDILet's ask the reporter Alexis Simendinger: is there something that could cement the case for impeachment one way or the other, at least in the public's mind, if not in the partisan politics of Congress?
SIMENDINGERWell, it would take something quite dramatic, because the president has been quite skillful at injecting, into the communications, his defenses, his even admissions. And you can see that the president and his allies and surrogates have offered a whole -- someone used the word today, on the news, carousel -- a carousel of defenses, as well as a carousel of accusations.
SIMENDINGERAnd so one of the things that President Trump is often very skilled about in communications is he'll come out and say what the thing is that you're not supposed to say. So, one of the things that you can hear in the range of defenses is the president's authority over foreign policy is whatever he decides it is. And you can hear Republicans talking about this concept: are there limitations on the president's interpretation or his management of foreign policy?
SIMENDINGERAnd so all of that starts to wear down the defenses, as well as the accusations. So, you ask about a smoking gun. Look, Democrats are trying to build a case for at least one, maybe two, possibly three articles of impeachment. One of them is obstruction, and you can hear Chairman Adam Schiff of California on the House Intelligence Committee talking about that today, the decision that they're going to have to make. And, publically, he's talking about obstruction.
SIMENDINGERThere's also a question of abuse of power: is there enough evidence to build that? But you can hear, in the defenses, it's reasonable enough that the president is offering explanations, and his allies are, but the American public might not feel dramatically moved or persuaded away from their current views.
SIMENDINGERI'll give you an example. I got an email, a very thoughtful email this morning from a reader who wrote to me. And she asked: are you watching the same hearing that we're watching here? You know, what in the world are you watching? Because here's what I heard. And what she was reflecting in her long, thoughtful, very articulate message was her own political perspective, her own suspicion about the news media, her own dislike of the Democratic inquisitors.
NNAMDIWell, let's take the temperature of the audience here at the Goodwin House and maybe start some arguments. (laugh) With a show of hands, do you think the president should be removed from office?
NNAMDII would say it's an overwhelming majority here that...
SIMENDINGERThat was almost unanimous.
VICTORI would say.
NNAMDI...yes, that raised hands here. Jennifer, you were criticized for your own criticism of Washington Nationalist fans chanting, lock him up when President Trump attended game five of the World Series at Nats Park. What do you think that says about the state of political discourse in this town?
VICTORHistory is going to judge this president as being a really terrible president. We've got children imprisoned on the border. We've got, you know, the incessant lying and self-dealing and so forth.
PRIESSWait, did you just say history...what did you say? You said...
VICTORDid I misspeak?
PRIESSWell, I want to be sure, because we don't have the history. We will not have the history of the Trump Presidency for another decade or 20 years.
VICTORI'm saying that I think history will judge this president very harshly.
PRIESSOkay. That's a prediction. Got it.
NNAMDIA history that Alexis is writing, even as we speak. (laugh)
PRIESSYes, live, and we'll tweet it out.
VICTORWhen the baseball crowd chanted lock him up, spontaneously, which of course was a play on his own chants done at his own rallies, I was sympathetic. I got it, right. However...
PRIESSSympathetic towards Trump or sympathetic towards that crowd?
VICTORSympathetic towards the crowd, towards the emotion expressed spontaneously. As a scholar of political science, though, what I understand is how important Democratic norms are for the stability of a Democratic country. Scholars have shown that, while institutions are important -- and, for the most part, our political institutions are working the way they more or less are supposed to -- what is breaking down is a really critical Democratic norm that is known as mutual toleration.
VICTORAnd that is the idea that when there's two political sides, that you fundamentally believe that your political opponents have a right to exist, that they have a right to the rule of law and to justice and to free speech and to oppose you when they want to oppose you. And that this mutual toleration of political discourse and tension is really key to being able to have a Democratic society.
VICTORAnd when the crowd chanted lock him up at the president, that, to me, was a sign of a degradation of that Democratic norm. Not because maybe he doesn't deserve to be locked up in their mind, or whatnot, but because it's not appropriate for people in the public to advocate for sort of erasing the rule of law. And it's a sign of that continued degradation of mutual toleration between political sides.
VICTORAnd if we see more of that, as we get into the Democratic 2020 primary season, or if we wind up seeing it at political rallies or candidates or even at the conventions next year, the party conventions, that will be a further sign of the degradation of these norms, which are a signal of degradation of democracy in the United States.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, let me cut to the chase. To what extent do you feel our democracy is in danger?
VICTOROh, I feel it's greatly threatened. It's absolutely threatened. Not so much from the institutional point of view. Again, it's from the norms. It's the Democratic norms that -- and the scholarship shows that as polarization worsens in a society, that creates the conditions for the breakdown of these important norms.
PRIESSThink about Trump. He beat 16 other Republic candidates because he was not part of the political elite, which means, on both sides, the political elite was not speaking to a lot of people. Trump's use of regular words cut through everything, because there's political speak, and there's how people speak. So, it doesn't mean that -- I didn't vote for Donald Trump, but I see what happened, because people in Washington weren't speaking the way most Americans speak.
VICTORExcept remember that he was elected by a minority of the population, right. So, that's the functions of the institutions. And...
PRIESSHe was elected.
VICTORBut he was elected, absolutely, by the rules. But the reason he was able to essentially capture that nomination is more a function of the weakness of the political party system, the institution of the parties. The weakness of the Republican Party to be able to coalesce on a sort of normal candidate.
PRIESS(overlapping) Which Trump, as an outsider, somehow knew those rules or could exploit them well enough compared to 16 people, Jeb Bush included, who couldn't do it. I'm just saying that Trump did something that Washington politicians weren't, and that's to speak regularly. Whether you like the words -- and there's a lot to dislike, for sure. And that's why I liked lock him up. It was using his words against him.
NNAMDIDavid Priess, on this notion about our democracy being in danger, as a former CIA officer, you were a witness to democracies unraveling all over the world. Based on your research on the various ways presidents have, shall we say, exited their posts, would you say that we could be headed down a path toward a not-so-peaceful transfer of power?
PRIESSI never would've thought that some of those fictional scenarios -- and like some members of the audience, I enjoy a political thriller that's a good read. And there have been these books before about the breakdown of norms in the United States, a dictatorial president, a slide into some kind of a governance that we never would have imagined. I thought that was fiction.
PRIESSAnd I never thought that the things I saw when I worked in the U.S. government overseas -- in terms of the backsliding of democracies, in terms of the rise of autocracy -- I never would've thought I would've seen those same factors going on in the United States. And my eyes have been opened in the last couple of years. Some of those dynamics are here.
PRIESSThat is not a determinative path, however. It is not irreversible. That does not mean we give up hope. If you give up optimism, then you have no motivation to act. You have no motivation to try to make things better for yourself and for those who follow us. So, that is by no means a pessimistic assessment. In fact, it's one to say, if we see things we don't like, we have a system that we can change them. We have a system that we can use our voices through our representatives, through political action. And it is still not repressed, as it is in many countries around the world. Let's not give up, out of a sense of negativity, that things are just going the wrong direction.
VICTORI completely agree, and I think you said that very beautifully. I would just add that I think we would be remiss if we didn't note that it is easier to do all of those things that you just said when you are in a position of power and privilege, right. So, people who have wealth, who are in positions of privilege and who are not disadvantaged in different ways, have that ability to participate in politics and make their voice heard much more readily than those who are disadvantaged.
PRIESSWith one countervailing point, and that is the rise of social media that Scott talked about is the average person in the United States, or in a troll farm in Russia has much more of an ability to affect the political conversation in the United States than perhaps ever before.
NNAMDIBarbara Morris, you have your hand raised.
MORRISThese impeachment hearings are making me so much more optimistic, because I am seeing what I hadn't realized before, and that is all the wonderful people who are civil servants. (applause) When Ambassador Yovanovitch said, you know, you all think we're partying, and we're not -- and she went on to talk about that -- so I have been very much impressed and almost humbled by that. And I do have a good sense of optimism on that.
NNAMDIBut I can't let you go without explaining, what are the Silver Panthers?
MORRISI'm a Silver Panther. We have about a hundred Silver Panthers, here. It's a Silver Panther huddle group. And it's a group of residents who are taking active -- they're being active in representing and supporting what good government they believe. I, and several others, we've marched, and I remember I marched for 11 hours the day after the inauguration.
MORRISAnd so really what we're doing is we're supporting what we believe is right. We're sending postcards, emails...
MORRIS...oh, that's right, the phone calls. Yeah, and so we're...
PRIESSI love the media mix. (laugh)
MORRISYes, it is. Some of us who -- the younger ones who are a little bit more mobile have gone down to Richmond and taken part in that. We're having Senator Warner come tomorrow and talk to us. So, it's an extremely active group. The Washington Post ran an article, oh, maybe 10, 15 years ago about the fact that seniors sit around and talk about their ailments. And I sent a letter to the editor and said, you know, we do more than that, and I gave a few examples. We do have ailments, and we talk about them, but we also move. (laugh)
NNAMDIThe Black Panthers may be gone, but the Silver Panthers are still around. (laugh) Final comment, Alexis.
SIMENDINGERI just wanted to add, in terms of optimism, we in the news business are seeing, in the exit polling and polling, that we're anticipating a mobilized electorate for this 2020 election. And no matter where you are on the spectrum politically, the idea of trying to increase turnout and voter participation in the United States, which all of us -- those of you who have been abroad, you probably have rolled your eyes at how the turnout is often very low, especially for midterm elections. But the idea of a higher turnout for 2020, I think, is a sign of optimism.
NNAMDIAnd that's all the time we have. Alexis Simendinger, thank you for joining us.
SIMENDINGERThank you so much.
NNAMDIDavid Priess, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJennifer Victor, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Scott Talan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDI(applause) Thank you all for showing up. (applause) A quick note from our lawyers, before we go. They want you to know that all of the views expressed on today's show are those of our guests and the audience members who participated in the conversation. They do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of Goodwin House, which was kind enough to host us today.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Julie Depenbrock and Maura Currie. (applause) Thank you Maura and Julie. We'll be back at our regular time tomorrow, at noon, with The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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