What sets Trump apart from Nixon and Clinton

Posted at 10:18 PM, Dec 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-22 00:24:16-05

(CNN) — As the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump on Wednesday, he addressed a rally in Michigan and said, “By the way, it doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached.” In that moment, the difference between Trump and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton became starkly clear.

It’s clear that Nixon and Clinton behaved very differently from Trump when faced with impeachment proceedings that clouded their presidencies. During their respective impeachment inquiries, both Nixon and Clinton ultimately cooperated with authorities. While Nixon resisted turning over information, he did yield to public pressure and let key witnesses testify. And he eventually turned over the infamous Watergate tapes when ordered by the Supreme Court. Clinton, on the other hand, agreed to testify after establishing predetermined conditions.

More to the point, both Clinton and Nixon were contrite and accepted responsibility for their behavior. Nixon, for one, resigned and said, “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.” After Clinton was acquitted, he issued a public apology and went back to work, putting his grudges behind him.

Thus, the case was successfully closed, the controversy resolved. More importantly, the country’s checks and balances held, and the oversight responsibility of Congress was honored.

Consider how different this impeachment process has been. Trump has been belligerent and defiant throughout. He has not turned over a single document to Congress and the White House has blocked key witnesses from testifying. His supporters have argued that the evidence supporting Trump’s impeachment is thin, never acknowledging it might well be bolstered if the President cooperated.

Given his steadfast support among Senate Republicans, the President is all but guaranteed an acquittal. We can only brace ourselves once that happens. Rudy Giuliani told CNN on Tuesday that Trump has been supportive of his continued search for dirt on Democrats in Ukraine. To top it off, Trump’s comments characterizing impeachment as a “hoax” in the scorching letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with his defiant performance at the rally in Michigan make clear he is anything but contrite.

No, this is a President who is likely to lash out, seek revenge, and continue abusing the powers of his office. And if he is acquitted — and if his behavior thus far is any indication — Trump is bound to feel vindicated and strengthened by the support of his followers.

Trump may emerge from the impeachment trial embittered and emboldened. If so, we are probably in for a heap of trouble, regardless of who wins the 2020 elections.

Editor’s note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and the former director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.