- Rick Perlsteinhistorian and author of several books, including The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which covered the Watergate investigations and Nixon’s impeachment.
The Senate opens the third impeachment trial of a U.S. president in the country’s history Tuesday, marking a historic day in Washington. Under proposed rules by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, each side will be given 24 hours over two days for opening arguments, after which senators will have 16 hours for questions and four hours for debate. The Senate will then vote on whether to hear from any new witnesses. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said McConnell is trying to rush the impeachment process, while House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, who is one of the impeachment managers, has accused the CIA and NSA of withholding documents potentially relevant to the impeachment trial. This comes as President Trump has added several prominent lawyers to his legal team, including former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose probe led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz. In 2008, Starr and Dershowitz helped serial pedophile Jeffrey Epstein receive a sweetheart plea deal when he was arrested on sex trafficking charges. One of Epstein’s victims also accused Dershowitz of sexually assaulting her, but Dershowitz has long denied the charge. We speak with Rick Perlstein, historian and the author of several books, including “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which covered the Watergate investigations and Nixon’s impeachment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It’s a historic day in Washington as the Senate opens just the third impeachment trial of a U.S. president in the history. Under proposed rules by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, each side will be given 24 hours over two days for opening arguments beginning on Wednesday. Then senators will have 16 hours for questions and four hours for debate. At that point, the Senate will vote on whether to hear from any new witnesses. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused McConnell of trying to rush the impeachment process.
MINORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER: A trial where there’s no evidence, no existing record and no new evidence, no witnesses, no documents, that isn’t a trial at all. It’s a cover-up.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as President Trump has added several prominent lawyers to his legal team, including former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose probe led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz. In 2008, Starr and Dershowitz helped serial sex predator Jeffrey Epstein receive a sweetheart plea deal when he was arrested on sex trafficking charges in Florida. One of Epstein’s victims also accused Dershowitz of sexually assaulting her. Dershowitz has long denied the charge. Starr is also the former president of Baylor University. He was ousted from the job over the school’s mishandling of reports of sexual assault by football players.
On Monday, the White House released a 110-page brief claiming that impeachment is, quote, “a dangerous perversion of the Constitution that the Senate should swiftly and roundly condemn,” unquote. In other impeachment news, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, who’s one of the impeachment managers, has accused the CIA and NSA of withholding documents potentially relevant to the impeachment trial.
We’re joined now by two guests. Rick Perlstein is a historian and the author of several books, including The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which covered the Watergate investigations and Nixon’s impeachment — of Nixon, who actually resigned before he was impeached. Epstein’s [sic] forthcoming book is titled Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980. He joins us from Chicago. And in Washington, Kristen Clarke is with us, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Rick Epstein [sic] , let’s begin with you. You covered the — rather, Rick Perlstein, let’s begin with you. I’m sorry for getting that wrong. Can you talk about what we are about to see?
RICK PERLSTEIN: A show trial. I’m really struck by the fact that the guy running this, Mitch McConnell, comes out of this tradition of Southern politics that all of us should go back and study. The fact of the matter is, for most of the 20th century, and of course all of the 19th, the South was basically an authoritarian society. It wasn’t really a democracy. And it used all kinds of strategies and stratagems to evade democratic accountability. I mean, when they said, you know, African Americans can’t vote, the laws didn’t say African Americans can’t vote. They used things like literacy tests. They used things like property qualifications. They used intimidation.
So, much the same way now, we see the Republicans running the Senate manipulating the rules in order to make it impossible to basically achieve a fair trial or anything approaching justice. So, we have this situation where they’re only going to be able to introduce the actual evidence and witnesses after they make their arguments. So that means anything that comes out tomorrow, we won’t be able to see. You know, Lev Parnas says that he’s not been able to present his evidence of Rudy Giuliani’s implication in these events to the Southern District of New York. That probably has something to do with William Barr. So, from every angle, we see the kind of walls closing in.
The big picture, I think, is, you can think of the kind of right-wing takeover of American politics as the Southernization of the United States. And this is sort of like what you saw when Southern juries would always acquit whites accused of crimes against African Americans and always convict African Americans accused of crimes against whites, no matter the evidence. Right? So we see this kind of pattern, that’s deeply embedded in American history, rising up to the highest levels of American justice. And it’s horrifying, and we shouldn’t have any illusions about what’s going on here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rick Perlstein, this whole issue of witnesses, and especially witnesses from the administration who might have direct knowledge of the president’s actions, could you contrast that? Or for those who don’t know of the specifics of what happened during the Nixon era, although Nixon never got actually impeached —
RICK PERLSTEIN: Mm-hmm, that’s right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — he resigned before impeachment — but several key White House aides, Haldeman, John Dean —
RICK PERLSTEIN: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — testified before Congress about what actually happened —
RICK PERLSTEIN: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — or at least submitted themselves to questioning.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Right. And that was basically to keep themselves out of jail, to basically look good for the judge in the Watergate trial, a guy named John Sirica, who was one of the heroes, because, basically, he was kind of expected to kind of go along with the White House’s cover-up, and he basically, at every step in his trial, pushed further and said, “No, the White House must be involved. The White House must be involved.” So, as White House figures basically faced the music, they submitted themselves to testimony. And Richard Nixon, at first, tried basically to assert executive privilege, which was a novel doctrine at the time. Sam Ervin, who was the head of the Senate Watergate Committee, called it “executive poppycock.” But eventually people just said, “Look, we’re going to save our hides.”
And it was a different Republican Party then. Some of the people on the Senate Watergate Committee, some of the Republicans, were actually quite active in investigating Nixon. One of the members, Lowell Weicker, was independently wealthy and funded his own investigation efforts. Now, that wasn’t the impeachment. That happened the next year in the House, so it was kind of not quite a parallel. But what you saw was a lot closer to an actual fair, open, good-faith inquiry.
Now, even then, there were still people who behaved like Fox News Republicans and refused to consider the evidence no matter what. And those people were all basically voted out of office in 1974. But it’s very memorable that one of the Republicans who was defending Nixon to the end, a congressman named Earl Landgrebe from Indiana, went on the Today show the morning before Richard Nixon resigned, after the smoking-gun tape came out proving that Nixon was directly lying to not only to the American people but his congressional supporters, and he said, “I’m going to support my president no matter what, even if you have to take me out and get shot. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” It’s almost like Earl Landgrebe would be a Republican leader now, not just kind of an embarrassment to the Republican Party.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about that moment? I mean, it was quite something. And a lot of people refer to Nixon’s impeachment, but in fact, in the end, he wasn’t —
RICK PERLSTEIN: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: — because he resigned. But that moment of the parade of Republicans that went to see him in the White House?
RICK PERLSTEIN: That’s right. Well, so, basically, the House underwent an impeachment inquiry in the spring and summer. That was the time when Barbara Jordan gave her extraordinary speech about the Constitution. And as this is happening, the Supreme Court is deciding a very epochal case, The United States v. Nixon, in which they’re deciding basically whether Richard Nixon has the right to extend executive privilege to cover up his own crimes. And they say, “Well, executive privilege exists. It’s important for a president to be able to have private conversations with his aides. But you can’t basically use it to stay out of jail, you know, to avoid being kicked out of office.” And that forced 60 more tapes to be forced into the public record. And on one of those tapes was this smoking gun that showed that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up in an extremely direct way within hours of the Watergate burglary. And after that happened, he shedded — he shed support, and senators basically let it be known that they were going to vote to remove him from office.
And a couple things happened that were very dramatic. First of all, in the final impeachment vote that day, after the first vote, the chairman, Peter Rodino, another hero, a congressman from New Jersey, said, “We have to clear this room, because we have reports that a plane might be heading here.” People were afraid that a plane was going to crash into the Capitol. That was of course a rumor. That didn’t happen. But that just kind of tells the fear and the drama and the idea that the walls were closing in towards dictatorship in America. And very closely after that, yes, the Republican leadership, most famously Barry Goldwater, who had been the last Republican presidential nominee, but, more importantly, the leaders of the House and Senate of the minority, came to Richard Nixon and spoke to him in a language that he understood, which was politics, which was votes. They said he didn’t have enough votes to survive and that he would suffer a historic humiliation if he persevered. And so that’s when he decided that the chips were down and he had to quit.
AMY GOODMAN: Rick Perlstein, we’re going to continue with you, author of several books, including The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. We’ll also speak to Kristen Clarke about what was not handed over to the House. Is the Justice Department involved in a cover-up? She’s the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “A Rapist in Your Path,” the anti-rape anthem, was developed by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis and has since gone viral. It was performed all over the country this weekend at the Women’s Marches.