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A Conversation With The Author Of 'Impeachment: An American History'


We'd like to talk more about what impeachment is and what it means because the process itself is so rare and so fraught it becomes a subject of debate in and of itself. So we've called Timothy Naftali for this. He's one of the four authors of a new book called "Impeachment: An American History."

Professor Naftali, Thanks so much for joining us.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So the standard for behavior worthy of impeachment is treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors, which seems vague. Is it?

NAFTALI: The founders could agree amongst themselves that any president guilty of bribery or treason had to be removed. There was also a sense that there would be crimes, there would be assaults on the constitution that wouldn't fit into bribery or treason - the categories of bribery and treason. But what do you do about those? And that's when they went back and took a concept from British jurisprudence - high crimes and misdemeanors. In other words, the crime would be against the state, against the very constitution - some actions, some conduct that undermine the very fabric of the society they were trying to knit together.

MARTIN: So there are - three presidents have faced impeachment before - Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after Lincoln's assassination, Richard Nixon, who resigned before he could actually be impeached, and, of course, Bill Clinton. Both he and Johnson were acquitted by the Senate and finished out their terms. But no president has actually ever been removed from office. Why do you think that is?

NAFTALI: Because presidents that are about to be removed from office see the writing on the wall. Richard Nixon had a very good sense of his waning support in the Senate. And when he saw it collapse, he realized that if he hung on, he would be removed, and he would lose his presidential pension.

MARTIN: Interesting. So one of the complaints that President Trump is making and that his supporters are making is that this is a purely partisan process. Has that complaint been made before? Is that what people normally say? Or is there something about this particular circumstance that's different?

NAFTALI: The reason that impeachment was kept on the shelf for over a hundred years after the Johnson impeachment process was that it was viewed by all sides in the American political community as highly partisan. But it doesn't always have to be the case. And in the Nixon era - a period when I think we saw a model impeachment process - the democratic leadership bent over backwards to make the process as bipartisan as possible.

MARTIN: We keep hearing all kinds of comments from - particularly from former Republican members about what members of their caucus say privately. But there's no way to know how to evaluate that. We do know that publicly, the Republicans are insisting that this is partisan. The Democrats are insisting that no, it isn't. It's a constitutional matter. Do you see from where you sit a way to bridge this difference of perspective?

NAFTALI: Yes. One way is the apparent decision on the part of Speaker Pelosi to shift the focus of the impeachment inquiry from Chairman Nadler of the Judiciary Committee, who publicly told the country that he was in favor of impeachment before the inquiry had even really started, to Adam Schiff of California, who is viewed as more moderate and also more judicious.

The other thing that was done in the '70s that had a salutary effect for the country was that there weren't two separate inquiry staffs. There wasn't a Republican and a Democratic staff. There was a unified staff. And, in fact, the House Judiciary Committee leadership chose a Republican to lead the inquiry staff. There are ways to send a signal to the country that this is above party.

MARTIN: That is Tim Naftali. He's written a new book with Jon Meacham, Jeffrey Engle and Peter Baker called "Impeachment: An American History." He's also clinical associate professor of history and public service at NYU, where he directs the undergraduate public policy program. We reached him in Des Moines.

Professor Naftali, thanks so much for talking to us today.

NAFTALI: It was my pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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