No one (should be) above the law

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.

I’ve been trying to get back to doing this newsletter after my surprise absence, but two things keep interfering. One is that I’m also trying to get back to work on my book on Smedley Butler and the origins of U.S. imperialism. The other is that, whenever I find a few hours to do a newsletter, the impeachment hearings of our absurdly corrupt president seem to come on.

Today, though, there was a little moment of kismet where both of those distractions came together. Arguing for holding Trump accountable, Prof. Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law scholar at the University of North Carolina, dragged out a quote from the godfather of American empire himself, Teddy Roosevelt:

“No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor.”

It’s a fine quote, crafted in TR’s trademark style: direct, pithy, with ample semicolons. But thanks to my book research, I happen to know a little bit about the irony of the context in which he gave it—context which, if you’ll go with me on a little side trip, could tell us something about the imperial expansion of presidential power, and how it’s come home to roost in the Trump era.

The Long Version

The quote shows up in Roosevelt’s third state of the union address. He was one of the last presidents to give the annual address to Congress in writing, and unlike today (when the SOTU is usually delivered in January) he sent it at the end of the year, on December 7, 1903.

It appears at the very top, in which Roosevelt bragged about the establishment of his new Department of Commerce and Labor. That department, later split into two, also included an investigative arm that later became the Federal Trade Commission. In effect, he was saying that both corporations and newly ascendant labor unions would be held accountable under his administration. Fair enough.

In fact, that might not have been the most relevant part of the speech to today’s hearing, which centered on President Trump’s attempted extraction of personal favors from Ukraine’s government in exchange for military aid. Roosevelt also addressed corruption specifically. “There can be no crime more serious than bribery,” Roosevelt wrote. “Other offenses violate one law while corruption strikes at the foundation of all law … Government of the people, by the people, for the people will perish from the face of the earth if bribery is tolerated.”

The irony is what Roosevelt had done the month before he delivered those pious words. For years, he had been trying to find a place in Central America to build a transoceanic canal, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, and facilitating U.S. expansion and trade. He had been convinced by a group of businessmen, headed by one of the first Wall Street law firms, Sullivan & Cromwell, to choose a route the clique owned on the Colombian isthmus of Panama.

But Colombia refused to agree to Roosevelt’s terms. So on November 3, 1903, a U.S. warship steamed into the harbor of Colón, on the Atlantic side of Panama, and set off a revolution.

This had all been meticulously planned in advance, with a skill that would make Rudy Giuliani salivate. American intermediaries had gone to Panama to meet with a group of elite merchants who supported the canal. Sullivan & Cromwell’s agents had planted stories in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World ahead of time to make the revolution sound inevitable—predicting it to the day. With U.S. Marines rushing ashore to keep Colombian forces at bay, the Panamanian conspirators bribed the Colombian Army regiment in Panama City to defect.

The U.S. immediately recognized the new Republic of Panama. The conspirators turned leaders in turn granted the United States effective sovereignty over what would be called the Canal Zone.

When Roosevelt asked his attorney general, Philander Knox, to prepare a memo laying out the legal justification for all this, he supposedly replied: “Mr. President, I think it would be better to keep your action free from any taint of legality.”

‘In the interest … of the whole civilized world’

Roosevelt devoted half of his 1903 state of the union to the Panama affair, blustering and outright lying to Congress. He omitted any mention of U.S. involvement, and cast a niche effort involving a few wealthy Panamanians as a widespread social movement, in which “the people of Panama” supposedly “rose literally as one man.”

After he left the presidency, Roosevelt would come clean—bragging that he had outfoxed not only Colombia but the legislative branch of the U.S. government. “I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” In 1921, the Senate formally apologized to Colombia, and made a $25 million payment in restitution. By that point, the U.S. had the Panama Canal, and with it was on its way to becoming the world’s richest and most powerful superpower.

Scholars see the seizure of the Panama Canal as a signal episode not only in U.S. imperialism but in the creation of the imperial presidency. The hypocrisy was astounding. Roosevelt had used shady corporate ties to conduct foreign policy while demanding corporations show “obedience to the law.” He called bribery the most serious crime imaginable, weeks after bribery won him his signature foreign policy achievement. And he set a precedent for all presidents who followed by doing an end-run around Congress, then sending a message to them lying about it.

Trump’s crimes differ from Roosevelt’s in some important respects. Roosevelt helped Panamanians break Colombian law, and might have broken international law if someone had been around to enforce it, but doesn’t seem to have run afoul of any U.S. laws. He lied to Congress, but he didn’t obstruct its Article I powers to investigate him. And while he plainly interfered in multiple other countries, he did not invite them to interfere inside the United States. Trump, by contrast, has done both.

Contrary to what many people on the internet believe, hypocrisy doesn’t invalidate an argument. Roosevelt was right: No one is above the law and no one is below it. And democracy and corruption are incompatible. Roosevelt should have been held responsible for what he did in Panama. Violating another country’s sovereignty should not be tolerated, any more than we should tolerate when someone else violates ours.

For way too long, U.S. leaders have given speeches about democracy and the rule of law without respecting it elsewhere. Those who cant about hypocrisy at the exclusion of everything else have enabled a president who seems to violate it everywhere, every day. The end of the Trump era should mark the beginning of a move in the other direction.

Thanks for reading. If you appreciate this kind of independent journalism and analysis, sign up to get this newsletter below. You can sign up for free, or support my work with a paid subscription:

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Getting our heads around American corruption

This is The Long Version—a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.

The most surreal part of Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s appearance at the House impeachment inquiry, beyond President Trump’s literally nearsighted attempt to distract from his damning testimony in real time, was the excuse the president’s defenders used for his actions in Ukraine. They were, they said, all about preventing corruption.

We don’t “provide assistance to countries that are lost to us due to … corruption,” the Republican counsel, Steve Castor, argued. Trump was just looking to see if the new Ukrainian president was “going to deal with corruption,” Rep. Jim Jordan said. He was merely “looking out for the taxpayer,” ranking member Devin Nunes offered.

Let’s stop for a second and remember how Sondland, the owner of a small chain of Oregon hotels, became the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, putting him in a position to witness Trump’s impeachable actions in the first place. He was a longtime Republican donor who acted as a “bundler,” collecting donations from his Portland buddies for Trump’s 2016 campaign. He distanced himself after Trump’s racist attack on a Pakistani-American Gold Star family. But when Trump eked out his victory, Sondland funneled $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, pushing the money through four of his companies. Soon after, despite his lack of diplomatic experience, and taking over at a momentous time for the EU, he got the post in Brussels.

Republicans confronting a GOP donor in a job he secured from their party’s leader through patronage, while insisting emotionally that their only concern is “corruption,” should be an obvious punch line. But Americans tend to have two contradictory reactions when it comes to corruption. When we’re talking about politicians at home, we shrug and say: All politicians are corrupt. When we’re talking about other countries, we get more judgmental and defensive. Those foreigners are corrupt. We can’t trust them with our hard-earned money.

Both have in common the them. We are hard-working and honest; if we cut a corner or two, we’re smart. They are unscrupulous and greedy. Corruption is confined to individuals here. There, it’s “endemic”—as much a part of the landscape as the dirt.

What is happening amid the impeachment process is a combination of both strains, foreign and domestic. The Republicans are trying to normalize Trump’s corruption while shifting the conversation to two thems: Ukraine, and their political enemies at home.

When Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s White House chief of staff, blurted out in October that Trump had indeed engaged in a quid pro quo—demanding Ukrainian authorities make baseless allegations about the Democrats in exchange for already appropriated military aid and an Oval Office meeting—he made both cases: Ukraine is a “corrupt place,” he said. “I don’t want to send them a bunch of money and have them waste it … [and] have them use it to line their own pockets.” Then, without a whiff of contradiction, he argued that bribery was normal U.S. government procedure. “We do that all the time with foreign policy … Get over it.”

This is an extremely dangerous ploy. In countries where corruption is normalized, life doesn’t get more fair. It gets worse. In Haiti, where everyone assumes all politicians are corrupt by default, participation in elections is approaching single-digit percentages. With no other way for people to make their voices heard, the streets are on fire with anti-corruption protests. But no one is even sure what they’re fighting for, because there is no one Haitians trust to lead them. In the meantime, people are going hungry, unable to get to markets for food.

In fact, the accusation of corruption can itself be a corrupt tool. This happens frequently in Russia and China, where favored cadres in government are given a monopoly on corruption while jailing their enemies for similar or more minor offenses. That’s how Ukraine developed its reputation too: Twenty years ago, its president “controlled the country via a combination of graft and the threat of selective prosecution, through kompromat and blackmail,” the political scientist Keith Darden recently wrote. (Ironically, or not, he added, Trump has played into that very system of corruption in Ukraine by pressuring its government to “put its legal system in the service of political ends.”)

But while Trump is comicallyridiculouslycorrupt, it would be a grave error to let Democrats off the hook in reply. Rewarding unqualified people who give you money with ambassadorships, for instance, is standard practice in both parties. Bush formalized the patronage scheme. Obama continued it. Nixon was the first to get caught—on his own White House taping system, naturally—putting a retroactive price tag on it: “My point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000,” he told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, in 1971. (Funnily enough, the open position Nixon was talking about was in Brussels, where Sondland flew back after his Wednesday testimony.)

The revolving door between lobbying jobs and government is a bipartisan disaster. Corrupt Democrats such as Sen. Bob Mendenez of New Jersey get a slap on the wrist, then go on making policy for the rest of the world. After trailing Republicans for years, Democrats are now awash in “dark money.” And while the insurance industry gives most of its money to Republicans, Democrats rake in a healthy 46 percent. (At least one study found a correlation between taking insurance company money and opposing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill.)

While the idea of a Ukrainian/Democratic nexus of corruption remains the stuff of Devin Nunes’ delusions, the broad inability to see corruption as a problem in our own country absolutely led us to this moment. An inability to hold corrupt leaders accountable on one hand, and talk frankly about matters of degree on the other, led to the election of a man so corrupt, he bragged on a primary debate stage about paying off politicians—then got praised (by idiots) for his “honesty.”

That a president who made his reputation on bribery, and surrounded himself with expressly corrupt officials, is now implicated in an instance of naked bribery—aimed at subverting yet another election—should surprise no one.

As Fiona Hill, the White House’s former senior director for Europe, testified in closed session to the House Intelligence Committee last month:

“And, again, as I’ve said, corruption is our Achilles heel here in the United States. And I am shocked, again, that we’ve had the failure of imagination to realize that the Russians could target us in the same way that they use corruption in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia. We, unfortunately, by not cleaning up our own act, have given them the doors in which they can walk through and mess around in our system.”

But there are still accountability mechanisms in this country, which we should use while we still have them. One of them is impeachment.

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photo of Trump and Sondland in Brussels: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Update: Return to the Wild

A real live event tommorow! (With livestream info included.)

Hello everyone. First off, thank you all for your support. Ever since I broke the news of my recent stroke, you’ve responded with an outpouring of love, encouragement, and humor, which has done wonders for my outlook and recovery. I apologize for not getting back to everyone just yet. But please know that I’ve read and appreciated every one of you. Community means everything, especially at a time like this.

I have spent much of my convalescing in the company of family and video games, which offer the thrill of solving problems on screens while offering confrontations with ghouls more fun and satisfying to beat than Rudy Giuliani. But while I am not quite ready to leave Hyrule behind just yet, the real world calls, and I’m finally feeling fit enough to answer.

Tomorrow (Thursday), at Duke University, I’ll be appearing with Andrea Pitzer (whose One Long Night is a must-read), and Roxana Bendezú of Migrant Roots Media for a panel on Concentration Camps: Then and Now, moderated by Brian Goldstone. Info on the event’s location for those of you in North Carolina is below.

For those of you elsewhere, there will be a livestream available at 6 p.m. eastern time, using this link:

I’ll be trying to speak with some lingering aphasia and a bit of a stutter. Will do my best. I’m happy most of all to be out, traveling, and getting back on my game, to talk again about this important and worsening issue.

Here’s the info for those of you who might want to come:

Thanks again to everyone. Hopefully I will get back to doing regular newsletters before long.

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. My next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow me on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

An earthquake in my brain

Three weeks ago, dear reader, I had a stroke.

Believe me, I was surprised as you are.

On an inauspicious Friday, I went to bed at two in the morning, a healthy, active, fairly young man with a thrice-a-week workout regimen, a nutritious diet, and a loving wife already asleep in bed. Shortly after — I’m not sure if I fell asleep or not — I started tossing and making enough noise that my wife, Claire, woke up cursing at me, and got ready to go sleep on the couch.

Thank God she didn’t before she realized something was seriously wrong. I wasn’t responding to her. Somehow, I ended up on the floor. The entire right side of my body was paralyzed, including the right side of my face. Whatever she said to me, I could only respond with two childlike words: “Stop it.” I’m not sure if I was talking to her or myself.

Before this, the last consciously death-defying event of my life was the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010 (an event that, fittingly enough, also found me in bed). But this time, I wasn’t afraid at all. I can’t fully explain the feeling — I assume it has something to do with the blood shutting off to a fear receptor in my left brain — but if anything I felt like I was having fun. Maybe I felt deep down like I was in good hands.

So much was working in my favor that night. One happy fact was that my parents had just come to town for Rosh Hashanah — including my father, a physician. Another was that our home is literally down the street from the University of Virginia’s main hospital, which has a world-class stroke center. Another is that it happened at a moment when I have pretty good health insurance (through my wife, who is faculty at the university). If I had been poorer, in a rural area, someone afraid of calling the authorities, or left alone, I might have died before anyone found me.

Instead, because I was rushed incredibly fast to a very good hospital, the vascular fellow on call, an M.D./Ph.D., was able to rush an honest-to-God miracle drug and break up the clot in my brain in time to prevent more permanent damage. Just a few years ago, the drug — tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA — was rarely used; rarer still in black and Hispanic patients, women, and those without private insurance. Just two years ago, the lingering controversy over the drug elicited a sympathetic profile in the New York Times. There were risks, including a chance it would provoke a cerebral hemorrhage. But with the counsel of the wise doctor, and my family’s consultation, she went ahead. The drug worked.

I spent two more days in the hospital and was released a day earlier than the doctors predicted. I’ve been resting at home. My physical symptoms, which could have been catastrophic, are nil. I have some aphasia — a hilariously fancy term for struggling to say and write words — but that is rapidly improving. I went to synagogue for some much-needed praying on Yom Kippur. I even went on Twitter a bit after coming home from the hospital, before Claire convinced me to give my mind some rest. (Though I am glad to say that, even with part of my brain out of service, I could still own the anti-anti-Trumpers.) I’m making up for the lack of intellectual combat by battling monsters on my new Nintendo Switch.

I’ll have more to say about my experience in a bit. I’ll be getting more fully back to work on this newsletter and my book soon. In the meantime, I want to thank all of you for your patience and support. Be well, and take care of each other.

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. My next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow me (soon, again) on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Image: Orla/Shutterstock

Impeachment: Why Trump should be afraid

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.

When voters gave the Democrats the House last year, Nancy Pelosi became perhaps the only Speaker of the House to have a plausible impeachment of the president looming over her on Day One. She worked hard to avoid it for months. As recently as this weekend, she was still dodging the central question of her speakership while nevertheless insisting, “Our founders could never suspect that a president would be so abusive of the Constitution of the United States.”

Today, under ratcheting pressure, led by the Class of 2018, the dam broke:

Trump’s attempt to pressure the Ukrainian president into damaging a potential Democratic challenger appears to have been the final straw, and it isn’t hard to see why. Trump apparently made his call the day after Robert Mueller testified about Russian interference in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, and Trump’s successful obstruction of his investigation. It’s the equivalent of narrowly getting away with a string of bank robberies, rushing off to rob another bank, then doing donuts in the courthouse parking lot.

Pelosi’s arguments against impeachment were never about Trump’s innocence or fitness for office. He has been eligible for impeachment since the minute he took office, thanks to the brazen crimes of his campaign. His potential rap sheet—from obstruction of justice, to gross negligence, to human-rights abuses, to encouraging white-supremacist terror against his own people—has only gotten worse.

Instead, she insisted that impeachment in the House would be a waste of time because the bar for removal—two-thirds of the Senate—may be unattainably high. That argument is still considered the wise-guy conventional wisdom, backed up by the least impressive of our pundits. As Pelosi left the podium at the Capitol this afternoon, a reporter shouted after her: “What will it accomplish if the Senate doesn’t convict?”

It will accomplish impeachment. To understand its value, even in the absence of conviction, it’s worth taking a quick tour through the short, frequently misremembered history of American presidential impeachments, as this latest chapter gets underway:

John Tyler (1843)

Contrary to popular belief, Andrew Johnson (see below) was not the first president to face impeachment proceedings. That honor goes to Tyler, an accidental president who, like Trump, relatively few people ever wanted in office in the first place.

He was elected as the running-mate of William Henry Harrison, becoming the first veep to inherit the presidency when the popular war hero immediately died. Tyler was at odds with his own party, the Whigs, in part because he was an enslaver at a time when many of them were becoming abolitionists. Soon he started vetoing their bills in a way that much of Congress, including president-turned-congressman John Quincy Adams, thought defied the spirit of the constitution.

Result: The brief impeachment proceedings cemented Tyler’s unpopularity, helping convince him to drop out of the 1844 presidential race and ending his U.S. political career. Tyler died in 1862, a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.

James Buchanan (1860)

The last in a series of incompetent, racist presidents who preceded the Civil War, Buchanan is best known as the one-term wonder who stood around doing nothing while the Deep South seceded. He spent his last year under an impeachment cloud, as a committee led by the abolitionist Rep. John Covode of the new Republican Party spent months digging up evidence of his administration’s corruption.

Buchanan spent more effort fighting the committee than he did the secessionists. In one exasperated protest he called its witnesses “a band of interested parasites and informers, ever ready, for their own advantage, to swear … to pretended private conversations … incapable, from their nature, of being disproved.” (If you hear the faint fore-echoes of “witch hunt” and “fake news” in there, you aren’t alone. When U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta ruled that Congress had the authority to investigate Trump this past May, he opened his opinion by quoting Buchanan’s letter.)

Result: The committee didn’t find enough to impeach “Old Buck.” But its highly publicized findings, including Buchanan’s attempts to bribe members of Congress into approving a fraudulent pro-slavery constitution for the new state of Kansas, triggered public outrage—including this awesome proto-Gawker shitpost from the New York Times.

Buchanan’s political career ended in disgrace, giving way to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It took a quarter of a century for another Democratic candidate to win the White House.

Andrew Johnson (1868)

Three years after Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, Johnson became the first of two presidents to actually get impeached by the House. It was—as impeachment always is—a political fight.

Most of the articles concerned Johnson’s firing of his—and Lincoln’s—secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, in violation of a law Congress passed specifically to prevent just that. But what it was really about was Johnson, a former Democrat from Tennessee, conciliating the defeated enslavers by reestablishing white supremacy: undercutting black voting rights, land reform, and promoting anti-black terror in the South. (Stanton was overseeing the military occupation of the former Confederacy, whose tasks included protecting the newly freed black people from white mobs.)

As the historian Annette Gordon-Reed has written, “Johnson’s real crime in the eyes of opponents was that he had used the power of the presidency to prevent Congress from giving aid to the four million African-Americans freed after the Civil War.”

You might think the country had grown tired of spectacles by 1868. But Johnson’s impeachment trial in the Senate riveted the nation. Johnson had known the Republican Congress was trying to impeach him for his white-supremacist actions when he fired Stanton, and he had known that, in doing so, he was breaking the law. Millions wanted to see if he would have to pay a price.

Result: The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of conviction, but not by enough: the 35–19 vote was one short of the required two-thirds majority.

Johnson’s supporters rallied in the streets. But, as Yoni Appelbaum noted in a piece on Johnson’s impeachment, “the euphoria proved short-lived.” The Republicans refused to nominate Johnson again, and the Democrats did too. Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency back for the Republicans, injecting new life into the Reconstruction effort.

“If the goal of impeachment was to frustrate Johnson’s efforts to make America a white man’s country again, it was an unqualified success,” Applebaum wrote. “Impeachment drew the United States closer to living up to its ideals, if only fleetingly, by rallying the public against Johnson’s assault on the Constitution.”

Richard Nixon (1974)

If you remember Richard Nixon fondly, congratulations: You’re part of an exclusive club. Before Donald Trump, Nixon was the gold standard for disgraced presidents. His signature crime remains so iconic that every major presidential scandal since has gotten a “-gate” appended to it. Rubber Nixon masks with giant penile noses were still a best-selling Halloween costume nearly a decade after he died.

When I was a teenager, in the 1990s, if you asked most people, “Who was the only president to get impeached?” the answer you expected to get was “Nixon.” (I know this because I was the quiz-bowl dork who had fun telling people it was Andrew Johnson.) People remembered it that way because, as Michael Schudson wrote in Watergate in American Memory, he “more or less was.”

You might know all about Watergate, or you might not, but there’s too much to summarize here. I’ll suffice with a few fun facts:

  1. The first impeachment resolutions were introduced against Nixon before the break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate even happened. One of them, introduced by Rep. John Conyers in 1972, focused mainly on Nixon’s furtherance of the Vietnam War.

  2. Thanks in part to his campaign committee’s dirty tricks, including the espionage at the DNC, Nixon won an astounding 520-17 victory in the Electoral College, netting 61% of the popular vote.

  3. In January 1973, just before the Senate voted to create a select committee to investigate Watergate, Nixon hit an all-time high Gallup poll rating of 67%. SIXTY-SEVEN PERCENT. Chris Cillizza would have married him.

  4. And yet, by the time the hearings were over, with evidence of Nixon’s spectacular corruption and criminality revealed to the nation, even his Republican allies had turned against him. A quarter of Americans still stood by the president, but it wasn’t enough.

Result: Nixon resigned, requiring a pardon to keep him out of prison. Many of his senior aides weren’t so lucky. The Democrats crushed the Republicans in that fall’s midterm elections. Jimmy Carter beat Nixon’s pardon-granting successor, Gerald Ford, in 1976. The Republicans were forced to rebuild their party from the bottom up. They spent the next 45 years obsessed with finding a Watergate to slap the Democrats with.

Bill Clinton (1998)

Watergate all but destroyed the Republican Party for the rest of the 1970s, but by 1980, the GOP was back. Leaning harder into the combination of race-baiting and anti-labor conservatism that Nixon rode to victory, Ronald Reagan became president. He left office with enough of his reputation intact to get bridges and stuff named for him, thanks in part to the fact that the Democrats never managed to impeach him for Iran-Contra.

But in 1992, a flashy, philandering Democrat from Arkansas beat Reagan’s former vice president, and all hell broke loose. The GOP spent the next six years trying to find a way to do to Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to win two full terms since Franklin Roosevelt, what the Democrats had done to Richard Nixon.

Ultimately, Independent Counsel Ken Starr nailed Clinton with a scathing report proving he had lied under oath about a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, starting when she was 22 years old.

Despite losing seats in the 1998 midterm elections—widely interpreted as a referrendum on their plans—Republicans went ahead and impeached Clinton during the lame duck (after a brief delay to allow him to bomb Iraq). The president was sent to the Senate for trial on two articles of impeachment: lying to a grand jury (including witness tampering), and obstructing justice in the larger sexual harassment case that had led to the discovery of their affair.

Result: It wasn’t close: No Democrats voted against the president, and several Republicans defected, leaving the Senate seventeen votes short of the 67 needed for removal. Clinton left office with a 65% approval rating.

Yet, by dragging Clinton into a constitutional process of removal, they convinced even most of his supporters that Clinton had committed adultery in the Oval Office and lied about it. George W. Bush ran in 2000 pledging “to restore honor and dignity to the White House.” That was good enough to overcome questions about his competency, and put him close enough to snatch the election from Al Gore with help from the Supreme Court.

It didn’t matter that the Clinton impeachment was easily the dirtiest on the list. Several Republicans who led the effort had, and lied about, similar affairs. Rep. Henry Hyde, who served as chief prosecutor in the trial, had an affair with a beauty stylist, 12 years his junior, at roughly the same age Clinton was when he had his affair with Lewinsky. Ken Starr was later forced to resign as president of Baylor University for covering up sexual abuse. That misogyny may explain why Starr overlooked and essentially buried the most serious allegation against Clinton, the rape of Juanita Broddarick.

The GOP dominated government for the next decade and a half, with only two years in which they didn’t control at least one house of Congress. Even with the Iraq War, the violent, botched response to 9/11, and the Great Recession to its name, the GOP was able to make an even plausible bid for the presidency against Hillary Clinton in 2016, in large part, fairly or not, because the albatross of her husband’s affairs and aura of duplicity hung around her neck.

In short, Republicans had learned the key lesson of Watergate (and the failure to impeach in Iran-Contra): Impeachments damage, and sometimes end, presidencies—even ones that seem invincible. That’s why they’re so afraid now.

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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photos: Harpers’ Weekly Political Cartoon (Wikimedia Commons), Johnson Impeachment Ticket (LOC), George Brett in a Nixon mask, 1976 (@si_vault)

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