History Lesson
January 17, 2019

"This wasn't the argument that I set out to make," that Congress must impeach President Trump, Yoni Appelbaum says at The Atlantic. But after researching the previous three impeachments in U.S. history, it became clear pundits and Democratic leaders "have overlearned the lessons of Bill Clinton's impeachment, which backfired on his accusers" in 1998, "and entirely forgotten the real significance of Andrew Johnson's" in 1868.

By Appelbaum's estimation, Trump's multi-pronged "attack on the very foundations of America's constitutional democracy" already more than qualifies him for impeachment and removal from office, but even if the Senate disagrees and fails to convict, the process is its own remedy "in five distinct forms," he explains in The Atlantic's March cover story, posted online late Wednesday:

In these five ways — shifting the public's attention to the president's debilities, tipping the balance of power away from him, skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking, moving the fight to a rule-bound forum, and dealing lasting damage to his political prospects — the impeachment process has succeeded in the past. In fact, it's the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it's a process that should be triggered only when a president's betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump's conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act. [Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic]

"It is absurd to suggest that the Constitution would delineate a mechanism too potent to ever actually be employed," Appelbaum writes. "With a newly seated Democratic majority, the House of Representatives can no longer dodge its constitutional duty. It must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs." Read the entire history lesson and argument for impeachment, including where Bill Clinton's accusers went wrong and Hillary Clinton's earlier cameo in impeachment law, at The Atlantic.

January 8, 2019

Despite some misgivings, the major American TV networks — NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox — are broadcasting President Trump's prime-time Oval Office address on what he's calling a "crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump is expected to make his case for declaring a national emergency that could allow him to start building his border wall, despite constitutional concerns. There's also trepidation he will repeat falsehoods he and his aides have been telling. "My network will be carrying Trump's Wall speech live," Stephen Colbert joked. "So at 9 p.m. Tuesday, tune into CBS to See B.S."

In November 2014, President Barack Obama asked the networks to broadcast his own prime-time immigration speech from the White House, focusing on what would become the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The networks said no, though some individual affiliates did carry Obama's speech live. Obama was butting into sweeps week, but also "there was agreement among the broadcast networks that this was overtly political," a network insider told Politico at the time. "The White House has tried to make a comparison to a time that all the networks carried President Bush in prime time [in 2006], also related to immigration. But that was a bipartisan announcement, and this is an overtly political move by the White House."

"This turnabout where George W. Bush gets free airtime to promote his immigration idea but then Obama doesn't get free airtime for his ideas because it's 'overtly political,' and then Trump gets free airtime for an overtly political message on immigration, is striking," Matthew Yglesias says at Vox. "It's particularly striking because, in this case, this mismatch is partisan rather than ideological — Bush and Obama had broadly similar approaches to immigration while Trump has a different one." In 2014, The Washington Post's Jaime Fuller suggested that relatively few people would've watched Obama's address even if it were broadcast on all the networks. The same may be true of Trump's speech. Peter Weber

September 6, 2018

White House officials dishing anonymously to journalists, including specifically to Bob Woodward, is nothing new in Washington. All presidents have had to deal with leaks and insider sniping, though most have fared better than what President Trump apparently calls his den of "snakes."

"We had people who left the Bush administration and turned on us immediately," Eric Edelman, an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, tells Politico, specifically mentioning former Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "But to have people inside the administration doing this while they're there, no." Former President Barack Obama, on the other hand, did have a mole of sorts, using the then-new medium of Twitter, as Politico explains:

In 2013 Obama administration officials hunted for a self-identified but unnamed official who tweeted internal gossip and biting commentary under the handle of @NatSecWonk, lambasting figures from Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea. An elaborate analysis of the tweets focused suspicion on a midlevel National Security Council nuclear arms expert named Jofi Joseph, who was caught after he tweeted information planted in a sting operation. Joseph confessed and was fired. He is now a tax consultant. [Politico]

Joseph did not get a fat book deal, but if you're curious about his @NatSecWonk body of work, Marc Ambinder wrote about it in The Week. Peter Weber

June 6, 2018

President Trump's rationale for piling tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU last week was certainly controversial. Turns out it's also historically questionable.

Trump cited "national security" when he imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tax on aluminum Friday. In a call on May 25, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Trump to explain the justification.

"Didn't you guys burn down the White House?" Trump replied, sources told CNN.

Middle school history graduates may recognize that it was actually Britain that committed that particular offense, and during the War of 1812. Of course, Canada was a British colony back then, and troops torched the White House in retaliation for an American attack in Ontario. So Trump could've been making an accurate joke — but CNN's source says it probably wasn't taken as one. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 31, 2017

On Monday evening, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Justice Department lawyers that as long as she headed the DOJ, its lawyers "will not present arguments in defense of the executive order" President Trump issued on immigration from seven Muslim nations because she's not "convinced that the executive order is lawful." President Trump promptly fired her, saying Yates "has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order."

Yates had been planning to leave the department a few days after the Senate confirmed Trump's nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and she reportedly knew her letter could lead to her early termination. But sometimes "the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper." That last quote is from Jeff Sessions — whose protégés reportedly wrote Trump's executive order — talking to Yates at her deputy attorney general Senate confirmation hearing in March 2015. "If the views a president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or deputy attorney general say no?" Sessions asked. "Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution," Yates replied.

Sessions went on to compare the president to a business executive. "Sometimes, the lawyers have to tell the CEOs, Mr. CEO, don't do that, we'll get us sued," he said. "It's going to be in violation of the law. You'll regret it. Please. No matter how headstrong they might be, do you feel like that's the duty of the attorney general's office?" Yates said yes.

Before wrapping up, Sessions strolled down memory lane: "I remember John Ashcroft, attorney general for Bush, he's been celebrated, when he was in the hospital, they tried to get him to sign a document that dealt with terrorism that he thought went too far, he refused to do so. So, I hope that you feel free to say no, in the character of John Ashcroft and others who said no to President Nixon on certain issues." Ashcroft was consulted in the hospital, Sessions did not mention, because Bush was first turned down by the acting attorney general, James Comey, who is now head of the FBI. You can watch the entire Sessions-Yates exchange at C-SPAN. Peter Weber

January 19, 2017

Senate Republicans are pressing Democrats to confirm at least seven of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees on Friday, in the hours after Trump is sworn in, while Democrats say they are probably open to confirming a handful, including Trump's picks for defense (former Gen. James Mattis), homeland security (former Gen. John Kelly), and CIA director (Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas). With 48 votes, Democrats can't stop any nominations, but if they don't agree to a voice vote, they can delay the confirmations.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), echoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), argued that seven nominees is only fair. "In 2009 when President Obama was sworn into office, there were seven Cabinet members confirmed on his first day in office — seven," he said. "That's a demonstration of the good faith and the civility that ordinarily extends in the peaceful transition of power." That's also not the whole story.

First, the Senate only confirmed six Obama nominees on Inauguration Day 2009 — the secretaries of agriculture, education, energy, homeland security, interior, and veterans affairs. The seventh, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was already in office, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration. Democrats also had a much larger 58-41 majority.

The biggest difference, though, is that Obama's nominees had been vetted — and in fact, three of his nominees withdrew their names before a vote: commerce secretary nominees Gov. Bill Richardson (who said a federal pay-to-play inquiry would cause an "untenable delay" in his confirmation) and Sen. Judd Gregg (a Republican who decided under partisan pressure that he had "irresolvable" ideological differences with Obama), and HHS secretary pick Tom Daschle (a former Senate majority leader who admitted failing to pay $128,000 in taxes on unreported income and use of a chauffeured car).

On Wednesday, CNN's Jake Tapper, who covered the Daschle story, explained how the Obama and Trump nominations are different. "The Senate committee was vetting Tom Daschle, they had issues and questions," he said. "I don't see that same sort of diligence going on in the committees. They seem to be rushing through a lot of these nominations."

Historically, "Cabinet nominations tend only to fail when dragged down by scandal or impropriety," not "policy disagreement or extreme political views," says Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight. "Only a scandal big enough to force the famously unapologetic Trump to reverse himself and withdraw a nomination is likely to bring down any of his appointees." Peter Weber

November 28, 2016

Green Party nominee Jill Stein is trying to reverse the presidential election result through recounts in three Rust Belt states, and there's a push to have the Electoral College just pick Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, despite Trump winning more electoral votes, but Keith Olbermann says there's an easier way to strip Trump of power: "The 25th Amendment, Section Four." The Constitution was surprisingly vague on what happens if a president dies or is incapacitated in office, he explained in his GQ show The Resistance, laying out the history of the amendment, enacted in 1967, and running down its three better-known clauses. "And then there is Section Four," Olbermann said, "written nearly 52 years ago, more with Woodrow Wilson in mind, and yet it might as well have been named for Donald John Trump."

This section allows for "instant impeachment," Olbermann said, with no hearings or doctors or trial. In about three weeks, with just two letters from the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet declaring the president unable to discharge his duties, a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate "results in the president remaining in office with the title but without the power," he said. "So it's a crazy-man clause, right? In the case of Trump, it presumes he behaves as president as he is behaving as president-elect."

"For my money, he's nuts — couldn't pass a sanity test, open book," Olbermann said. "But of course, Section Four of the 25th Amendment here does not say 'nuts' — or impaired, or erratic or unbalanced or unhealthy or bipolar or narcissist or sociopath or psychopath. It only says 'that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,'" a description that Olbermann found "kind of vague." Keith Olbermann sees you shaking your head. "Even if you loathe or fear Trump, you must look at this and say: 'This can't happen in a democracy, the people voted for him. You can't just un-president him,'" he said. "The hell you can't!" And he had another brief history lesson, this time about British prime ministers, to make that case. Watch below. Peter Weber

September 13, 2016

If the 2016 election has given you an unnerving sense of 1990s déjà vu, this is going to make it worse. On Tuesday, with Hillary Clinton sidelined with pneumonia and Republicans demanding her health records, Bill Clinton is flying out to Los Angeles to headline some fundraisers for his wife's presidential campaign. Two decades ago — on Sept. 12, 1996 — President Bill Clinton was on a 24-hour fundraising trip through California for his own re-election bid, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, "White House officials scrambled to deal with questions about why they will not release the president's full medical records." The article, headlined "Questions on Health Records Dog Clinton" and unearthed on Monday by L.A. Times reporter Matt Pearce, gets even eerier:

At campaign stops over the last several weeks, Republican officials have repeatedly raised the issue of Clinton's health — often hinting without substantiation that Clinton suffers from some embarrassing medical condition.... The medical records question has dogged Clinton since the 1992 campaign. Then, as now, Clinton has authorized the release of only partial information about his medical condition. White House spokesmen and his physician have issued statements that he enjoys overall good health but have not provided detailed data from his annual medical exams. [L.A. Times]

Despite the similarities, there are notable differences, too. Bill Clinton, for example, was 50 years old and his opponent, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), was 73. Hillary Clinton is now 68, and her opponent, 70-year-old Donald Trump, has not "been more forthcoming, distributing results of a battery of medical tests and making his personal physician available for interviews," as the L.A. Times says of Dole. In fact, Trump has so far provided less medical information than Hillary Clinton. To learn what else has changed and what hasn't in 20 years — Bill Clinton's 1996 fundraiser featured Tom Hanks, Stephen Spielberg, and Barbra Streisand, for example — read more at the Los Angeles Times. Peter Weber

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