Editor's note: This episode was first published Sept. 27, 2019.
It’s been a historic week, with news that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has officially opened an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
There’s no better expert to examine the recent events in Washington than Prof. William Howell, one of the leading scholars on the power of the American presidency. In this episode, he discusses the historical context of impeachment, the Republicans’ response, the inquiry’s effect on the Trump presidency and its potential impact on the 2020 election.
- Big Brains podcast: Trump and the Changing Power of the Presidency with William Howell
- Study shows power of imagery in improving perceptions of president
- Watch: Impeachment stakes high in 2020 election—Associated Press
- ‘Impeachment is unpredictable’: 2020 race braces for uncertainty—ABC News
- Mueller Testimony to Test Tepid Sentiment for Trump Impeachment—Wall Street Journal
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago. This is Big Brains. I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Tape: Let’s get right to that historic news from Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
Paul Rand: When historic news events happen, to whom do you turn for an unbiased analysis? The talking heads on TV? Twitter? We like to go to the experts, the academics, and certainly, we’ve seen some historic news this week as the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has officially opened an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Nancy Pelosi: The president has admitted to asking the President of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable fact of the President’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections. Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representative’s moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.
Paul Rand: And there’s no better expert to examine these events than University of Chicago political science Professor William Howell. One of the leading scholars on the power of the American presidency. So professional Howell, Big Brains’ alum. Thanks for coming back on the podcast to give us an expert view on these events.
William Howell: Thanks for having me.
Paul Rand: Quite a week, hasn’t it been?
William Howell: Yeah, I mean every week for the last couple of years has felt like quite a week. But this one’s a real doozy.
Paul Rand: Well, we had you on pretty recently as your role being an expert and presidential historian, and in many ways, I’m assuming that this is unprecedented. I keep hearing those words being used and maybe the best place to start is what’s your top-line analysis of the week’s events?
William Howell: What we’re observing here is that, look, a bunch of liberal Democrats came to office ready to impeach right from the get-go. And what we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks is a handful of moderate Democrats, but those were the handful of moderate Democrats that were needed in Speaker Pelosi’s mind to actually move forward.
William Howell: And so you can’t understand the latest facts and the latest allegations without understanding that they come on the heels of all these other kinds of claims and accusations that had been directed toward this president.
Paul Rand: OK. So there’ve been allegations as you mentioned from the beginnings ever since, if not prior to President Trump coming into office. What’s actually changed here?
William Howell: What is different here, to my mind, is that the facts that have been put before us put in really stark relief the possibility that we have a president who’s deploying the powers of his office for his own private gain and that represents a deep and profound violation of the public trust. Also, it’s a much kind of cleaner plot-line, right? If you read the report that came out by the whistleblower, it’s a nine-page report. It’s beautifully written.
Paul Rand: I keep hearing that.
William Howell: It is, it’s really a professional document, and it has punch in ways that the 400-odd-page Mueller report written by Mueller being Mueller, which is being coy and removed and hesitant. What we see in this nine-page document is a very sharp, incisive set of allegations. To my mind, Speaker Pelosi had very little choice but to move forward. She’s got to keep her party happy, and you can’t continue to not move forward when you have north of 200 congressional Democrats wanting to proceed. But her concerns how it’s going to play out politically, both in the primary season, in the general election and not just for the presidency, it’s worth noting.
William Howell: What’s at stake here is not just whether or not a Democrat can dislodge Trump from the White House, but the number of Democrats who gained seats in Congress and larger still what this means for separation of powers issues. What’s at stake here is not just the latest showdown between Democrats and Republicans. It has to do with what meaning we assign to this impeachment power. And the Congress’s general capacity to check presidential power.
William Howell: And if what we say is that a president who may well have appealed to a foreign head of state to launch a set of investigations whose primary purpose is to discredit a political opponent of the president to ensure that the president holds office in the upcoming election. If you say that doesn’t warrant impeachment hearings, then what does? And that becomes a point that subsequent Congresses will look back on to find guidance on whether or not scandals that arise in their time rise to the level of impeachment.
Paul Rand: So the question that consistently comes up is, well, where are the Republicans as these things emerge and this idea of what and who is constitutionally responsible? Does this change, given the idea that nobody wants to be in this position? And even Democrats that may really loathe what’s been going on, probably don’t want to be in this position for a number of realms. I can’t imagine that the Republicans certainly want to be in this position, but there’s got to be a point. You think there has to be a point where the answer is this is so potentially egregious that to not take the constitutional responsibility here is a pretty big deal.
William Howell: If you’re on the left, you feel like you’ve been having that conversation for months and months and months.
Paul Rand: Absolutely.
William Howell: At what point are the Republicans going to say enough, and that this president, his behavior, his antics, his assault on democracy has to be rebuked? We still have not seen it. So there’s some talk about maybe one or two coming out in a very cautious way.
Paul Rand: You always hear these reports that there are Republicans waiting in the rings for the right time and that may or may not be accurate. Is there a point or a movement where it actually becomes disadvantageous for Republicans to not actually speak out? And what does that look like?
William Howell: Well, to my mind, it is now.
Paul Rand: And would you have said that before this incident or you would understand why they hadn’t?
William Howell: I think if you’re interested in the long-term health of the party, the Republican Party, to my mind, they’re on the wrong side of history here. That they need to be seen as having a principled stand where they will put the obligations and needs of country before the obligations and needs of party or their own narrow electoral concerns.
Paul Rand: So what kind of conversations are going on within the Republican Party right now if you had to guess?
William Howell: I think there’s some anxiety on the Republican Party among some members, but I think among a lot of members it’s about figuring out what their counterpunch is going to look like.
William Howell: And the counterpunch, there’s no great mystery to this, is going to be conveying the Democrats as being rabidly anti-Trump about them not caring about the best interest of the country and not getting down to work to solving problems and lacking any principles or any sense of standards. They are going to just dismiss, dismiss, dismiss.
William Howell: And so I think to the extent that there’s much of working going on, it’s about shoring up that message and deploying it on all fronts and taking their cues from the President in doing so.
Paul Rand: The last time, well, that you were on Big Brains, you talked a lot about how President Trump has completely changed the office of the President and arguably for the foreseeable future. How do you think this impeachment plays into the standing of the Office?
William Howell: OK, well, I’d say two things. I’d say first there’s the standing of the Office, but then there also is the standing of democratic norms. When we so persistently have a president who’s deploying those powers, not just the formal powers, but also the powers of public appeals, and the position that the president operates within our polity. The president can structure the terms of public debate like no other single elected official in our politics.
William Howell: And when the powers are being used to degrade basic notions of the truth in order to belittle anybody who would represent an opponent, our politics are diminished. And I really worry about that, and I worry about that long after Trump leaves because even if this impeachment is successful, and I suspect that the preachment itself will be just as I think all signs point towards the conviction in the Senate not being successful.
William Howell: There’re going to be a nontrivial portion of Americans who are going to think that Trump was delivered a bad rap. Trump was mistreated, and this is only more evidence of how corrupt and broken our politics are. And that anger and disaffection, that seething anger and disaffection among a nontrivial portion of the American public is going to persist just because even if we could remove the president, there’s not going to be a natural or immediate corrective.
Paul Rand: If you looked at this, this is now historically the fourth, and I want to be sure I have my language right. We’re doing an impeachment investigation versus an impeachment-
William Howell: Formal articles of impeachment had been brought forward. We have three previous occasions. One in 1868 with Andrew Johnson, we have one in 1974 with Richard Nixon, which doesn’t proceed because Richard Nixon resigns, he sees how all this is going to play out. And then we have it again in 1998 with Bill Clinton. And so we’ve only formally impeached presidents twice.
Paul Rand: OK, and if you look historically at this, how do you see this one in relation to the two that-
William Howell: So the facts does differ. There’s no White House intern. I mean look, the deep concern there was we had a president lying under oath about a dalliance. When the comparison is the president deploying the powers in order to convince a foreign head of state to launch an investigation into a political opponent, boy, that feels like, to my mind, I think to many people’s mind a very big deal. That’s not to say that there were serious concerns-about Clinton’s behavior in office. So points of fact are different. But I think, look, Democrats vis-à-vis Nixon, and Republicans vis-à-vis Johnson, and Republican’s vis-à-vis Clinton had lots of things to complain about before the triggering events. And the kind of very local concerns that animated the debates in Congress were presented. There was rising levels of discontent.
William Howell: And that’s why I say I think a feature of impeachment hearings isn’t that they come out of nowhere and shake everything up. They represent a culmination of deep discontent typically by the opposition party. Not so much in 1868 vis-à-vis Republicans, but certainly in ‘74 and ‘98 and in 2019.
William Howell: I think if you were to pick a single, a single event that we could look to for guidance as a counterpart to these current accusations. The event that I would point to is in the 1968 presidential election in which there was talk about Johnson negotiating a peace deal with the North Vietnamese and ending the war. And there is reason to believe that members of the Nixon campaign scuttled those efforts by reaching out to the North Vietnamese and saying, “Look, you’re going to get a better deal with us than you’re going to get with them.”
William Howell: And the claim among historians who’ve looked at this in some detail is that they did that because they saw that the biggest liability, not that Johnson had, but the Democrats had, was the war itself. And so this would enhance Nixon’s electoral prospects. Now, on the one hand, that is shocking and awful because it had to do with the prolonging of a war in which-
Paul Rand: Lives were lost.
William Howell: Thousands of them going forward. And we’re not talking about that right now. But what we are talking about is a president himself in the Office deploying those powers again for his own narrow electoral gain. And so we should be shocked and appalled by what happened in 1968 although that wasn’t open. That’s something that we knew about after the fact, we learned about after the fact. This is happening in real-time. If presidents who deploy their powers in this kind of way are not checked, we’re in for a load of trouble.
Paul Rand: So if we outline and say, listen, if we could go down two, three, four likely outcomes that could play out here, what do you think those most likely outcomes are?
William Howell: Oh, boy. Well, I think we’re all over the place when we do this. Let’s do this, though. So one outcome is that more facts come to the fore that really nail down this accusation of Trump, and all of them point towards him having abused the office and leveraging it for his own electoral gain.
William Howell: That does not convince the vast majority of Republicans, but it convinces 10 or 15 enough such that then joined with Democrats that while he may not actually be convicted in the Senate, this becomes the dominant narrative in the upcoming election and Trump is kicked out of office. There’s one.
William Howell: Another one is that the Republicans don’t budge. They just hang together, and they counterpunch again and again and again, and they say, “What we have here are a set of Democrats who are doing everything they can to de-legitimate a duly elected, a democratically elected president. And to make it impossible for him to act on the best interest of the public.” And that has the effect of rallying the Republican base that, look, we already knew that Democratic turnout or we certainly expect Democratic turnout to be quite high in 2020. The Republican disadvantage was that there are set of Republicans who were kind of on the fence, worried about whether or not to turn out, is this really their guy?
William Howell: Well, damn it, when the alternative is a party that is so biased and so single-minded in their efforts to take on this president that will draw them out. The thing I guess that I hope for, the scenario that I hope for outside of the outcomes of the 2020 election, that I hope for is that there can be something that approximates a national reckoning about what these facts are, what they mean for expectations of the president, what they mean for congressional checks, generally, on presidential power, and the importance of those checks.
William Howell: I don’t think there’s any hope that we’re going to have much disciplining happening in contemporary American politics, but five, 10 years out, it can discipline the kinds of understandings and dialogue that happens about what these checks ought to look like.
Paul Rand: Well, I think that there’s a certain handful of pundits, for lack of a better word, that are actually articulating and saying it looks like he could be indeed guilty of the things that he’s being accused of, but even given that we should not go down the impeachment route for a number of different reasons. How do you respond to that?
William Howell: I am quite sympathetic to the idea that politically there’s very real risk involved with moving forward with articles of impeachment. There is some chance that it may lead to Trump’s reelection. On the other hand, the Democrats have no choice but to move forward, not just because enough Democrats within the party want to do so and that Speaker Pelosi’s hand has been forced.
William Howell: But also because as a principled matter, when we think about congressional checks on presidential power, if this doesn’t rise to the level of a formal rebuke, then I don’t know exactly what does. What’s at stake here is not just who holds office in 2020 it has to do more generally with the capacity of Congress to check executive power and Trump is not going to be the last president who represents a threat to the interests of the country.
William Howell: Now, to my mind, and I have written a great deal about this, I think presidents in the main are forces for good. There’s lots of reasons to think that they, in the main, take actions that Congress is incapable of taking, and so the idea that the whole game should be one of checking and guarding and limiting presidential power when you think about separation of powers is really misguided.
William Howell: That said, if we care about the health of our democracy, we need to care about the capacity of Congress to limit and when necessary, rebuke the president when they deploy the powers of the Office for their own private interests. This seems to be one such case.
Paul Rand: So as we will go into the weekend, we’re hearing about what new things could be coming out. What are you going to be watching for?
William Howell: A couple of things. I’m going to be looking for the broad narratives that take hold on the Democratic and Republican side. I actually think we already know what the Republican side is going to be about dismissing and de-legitimizing and deflecting all the way down, start to finish.
William Howell: But the question is can Democrats find their voice and speak about this in a way that is cogent, wherein they can make the point in two to three sentences. If it requires two to three paragraphs when going up against a set of Republicans who want to say, “You see, this is just more evidence of the Democrats coming after us, and they’re just looking for reasons to do so,” they’re going to be playing on their heels.
William Howell: If they can speak in a cogent, forceful way about what these facts mean and what we as a country need to do in response to them, I think then, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
William Howell: The other thing that I am looking for is not only what facts emerge but what is the status of those facts in the national conversation that ensues. One to notice, Nancy Pelosi moves forward with these articles of impeachment before some of the accusations had actually been verified. Now, one reason for that might that she already knew that in fact that the accusations had merit that wasn’t done publicly and-
Paul Rand: Do you think maybe that jumped the gun a day or two?
William Howell: Well, I think it’s a risky move to make. Imagine this whistleblower comes forward, gives a public presentation before Congress that looks something like what Mueller did before Congress. It was hesitant, it was reluctant, and it lacked force that that plays very nicely into Republican claim, “You see, here you go again, Democrats. You’re just looking for a reason,” and that would be a real loss for them.
Paul Rand: All right. You have been up to your gills with media interviews and talking about this. Thank you for making time to come in. If you’re willing, I’m sure we’d love to have you back.
William Howell: Terrific.
Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. Our show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.
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