The History Briefing On This Week's Impeachment Updates: How Historians Helped Us Understand the News

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tags: impeachment, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani

Paige Morse is an intern for the History News Network.

Editors note: This is part of a series called The History Briefing. Contributors, primarily HNN internships, historically contextualize the week's top headlines by summarizing how different historians have added their unique perspective to enhance news coverage. 


Ever since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on September 24th, the news has been dominated by impeachment updates. This week, the Trump administration voiced its unwillingness to cooperate with the inquiry and GOP support for impeachment grew. Historians weighed in on the current state of the impeachment inquiry across many publications this week. Here are some highlights.


J.M. Opal, the chair of the department of history and classical studies at McGill University, wrote an op ed for The Washington Post’s Made By History Section examining the impeachment of William Blount, a senator from North Carolina, in 1797. Opal believes William Blount was similar to Trump because he was “a man who tried to erase the line — blurry as it may be — between public service and private interest." Blount was born to a wealthy family, had a real estate background, and was impeached on misdemeanors regarding foreign relations. As Opal reminds us, no U.S. president has actually been removed from office following impeachment but Blount provides an example of a Senator who was removed for similar offenses. Opal emphasizes the importance of taking the impeachment inquiry seriously because our founding leaders did so. 


Josh Chafetz, a professor of law at Cornell University, historically contextualized the different paths the House can take. To Chafetz, the Trump Administration’s lack of cooperation warrants a “hardball” response from the House. Chafetz argues that the Bush and Obama administrations “raised significantly more plausible objections to congressional subpoenas,” yet the courts backed up the House and forced the administration to disclose subpoenaed information. Since the courts tend to back up the Houses' power, Chafetz recommends that the House use its powers to arrest Rudy Giuliani and others who refuse to testify. The judicial branch can overrule Congress if it finds the person arrested was not in contempt of Congress, as happened in 1916. Although Congress has not arrested anyone since 1935, Chafetz explains a bold historical precedent that Congress could use as it continues its impeachment inquiry.  


Journalists use history to strengthen stories and contextualize events, often by doing research or interviewing historians. Marisa Iati, a reporter for The Washington Post’s Retropolis section, used both tactics to critically analyze a statement from Rudy Giuliani this week. Giuliani compared impeachment to the Salem witch trials, tweeting that the late 17th century trials did not use anonymous testimony. Guiliani was firing back as Congressional leaders said the whistleblower coudl provide annonymous testimony in the impeachment inquiry. Iati’s research on the Salem witch trials suggested much of Guiliani's statement was wrong. Iati describes what a witch trial looked like in the 17th century to emphasize the extremism of comparing the current invesetigation to the Salem witch trials. She writes, “Politicians and commentators of all ideologies have been known to refer to the Salem witch trials to argue that a member of their preferred party is getting a raw deal in an investigation.” The Benghazi incident that wedged its way into Hillary Clinton’s election coverage was often referred to as a “witch hunt,” Iati points out. The article was strengthened by the insights of Salem State University history professor Emerson W. Baker, who Iati interviewed for the piece. Historians help contextualize headlines for the public not just through penning their own arguments; agreeing to be interviewed also plays a key role in understanding the history of a particular event.


Frank O. Bowman, III contributed an article to Just Security that criticizes the White House’s letter refusing to cooperate in the impeachment proceeding released Tuesday. Bowman is a law professor at the University of Missouri and the author of a recent book, High Crimes & Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump. He calls the announcement a “public relations exercise” that is filled with “errors and mischaracterizations,” and characterizes the actions of the administration similar to those of the Andrew Johnson administration. He emphasizes that the administration’s refusal to cooperate must be addressed appropriately by the House of Representatives' leadership. The House of Representatives has the constitutional authority to move forward with impeachment, as did Congress during the Johnson presidency, Bowman argues. Bowman’s historical background deems him a critical voice to inform the public about the week’s top story.