Fervent anti-Trumpers recall the scene the way the faithful venerate The Annunciation.
On Aug. 7, 1974, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona led a small delegation of GOP congressional leaders to the Oval Office to tell President Richard Nixon that he no longer had enough support to survive an impeachment trial in the Senate. Multiple books have replayed the storied moment: the curmudgeonly Goldwater sitting opposite the president’s desk; House Republican leader John Rhodes sitting to one side; Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott to the other. It became received wisdom that the trio’s visitation altered history. After all, Nixon announced his resignation the next day.
In reality, Nixon didn’t need to be persuaded. When he met with Goldwater and Co., Nixon had already decided to resign (he was a good vote counter). The senators, as it turned out, never actually used the word “resign.” Instead, they told the president, he had lost his party’s support. It’s true what they say about the Oval Office; not even giant killers speak their minds in that haunted room.
Nonetheless, we can wonder what it would take to make history, in effect, repeat itself. What would compel President Donald Trump’s own party to show him the door?
The answer, it appears, is nothing. The Republicans are even more dug in on Trump than they were on Nixon. It could happen — but only if congressional leaders are willing to risk a true constitutional crisis.
Right now, Democratic leaders seem intent on a quick process: impeachment in the House before Christmas and a trial in the Senate sometime in the next few months. House leaders believe they have enough evidence to impeach the president. Finding enough Republicans to convict him in the Senate by a two-thirds vote looks impossible.
Or so it appears with the public opinion polls split on the question.
If Democratic leaders are serious about convicting Trump of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” — as opposed to merely making a political statement — they need to embark on a longer, more arduous path. Investigators would have to subpoena all the witnesses and documents from a White House that would resist, claiming executive privilege and presidential immunity. The legal arguments would wend their way to the Supreme Court — slowly, very slowly, as Trump’s lawyers continue to resist and delay. But if the courts wish to, they can speed things up. That’s what happened 45 years ago. The Supreme Court decided United States v. Nixon in July 1974 after less than four months of legal jousting.
Such a path may fail. Federal judges, including Chief Justice John Roberts, may want to keep the courts out of the political process and let the voters decide Trump’s fate on Election Day next November. Also, a conservative Supreme Court may be sympathetic to the idea that a president can resist a political fishing expedition from a congressional committee.
But a formal impeachment trial in the Senate, explicitly provided for by the Constitution, is different. It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would allow the executive to simply stonewall the other branches of government. The justices might limit the scope and scale of the subpoenas, but Trump would still have to produce significant evidence. Perhaps the facts would clear him. But Trump does not seem like a man with nothing to hide.
When the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over the famous “smoking gun” tape, proving his role in the Watergate cover-up, the president asked his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, “Is there any wiggle room?” When the answer was “no,” Nixon submitted to the rule of law.
Would Trump? If he tried to stiff both Congress and the Supreme Court, public opinion polls would likely turn quickly against him. A number of Republican senators, who read their own polls and care about their prerogatives, would be knocked off the fence. In Nixon’s case, Republicans were loyal to the president until the polls turned against him. Then they weren’t.
That’s the scenario that could wind up with a group of long-faced senators trooping into the Oval Office to push out its current occupant. By then, even Trump will know the game is up. Or would he?
Evan Thomas is the author of 10 books, including “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.” This column was originally published in The Washington Post.