Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon looms over Trump impeachment inquiry

In a 1994 interview with the Vail Daily, Ford said 'I’m more convinced today that it was the right decision for the country as a whole'

In an interview with the Vail Daily a quarter century ago, Gerald Ford reflected on his controversial decision to pardon Richard Nixon.
Daily file photo

As the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump enters its public phase, polls show the nation is dramatically divided on the issue — an even deeper split than the national rift that motivated former president and Vail Valley resident Gerald Ford to pardon President Richard Nixon in 1974.

In an exclusive interview with the Vail Daily a quarter-century ago, Ford, a Beaver Creek resident at the time, said his controversial pardoning of Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal “was the right decision for the country as a whole.”

Nixon had recently died when Ford gave the Vail Daily that phone interview in 1994, 20 years after Nixon became the only president to ever resign the office as he faced almost certain impeachment in the House and removal by the Senate for crimes related to the break-in at Democratic National Party headquarters in the Watergate building. Issues of government mistrust, congressional overreach and presidential abuse of power resonate to this day.

“ … If we do not wrestle this to the ground right now based on principle, you can draw a straight line, I believe, from the Nixon pardon and the consequences of that to what we are experiencing today with Donald Trump’s lawlessness,” former federal prosecutor turned television analyst Glenn Kirschner said recently on MSNBC, calling Trump’s alleged Ukraine transgressions like “Nixon’s lawlessness on steroids.”

Trump is accused of exchanging nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia for a Ukrainian investigation into political rival and 2020 Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden. If the House acts with just under a year to go until the 2020 election, Trump would be only the fourth president to face articles of impeachment.

Support Local Journalism

Vail’s president

Ford, a Vail Valley icon who started skiing here while a Michigan congressman, remains the only man to be appointed both vice president and president — named to the vice presidency by Nixon in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation following tax evasion and money laundering charges in 1973. Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes related to Watergate, while others went to jail, and he later swore under oath there was no previous deal in place before Nixon resigned.

“I was right when I made the decision in September of 1974, and I’m more convinced today that it was the right decision for the country as a whole,” Ford told the Vail Daily in May of 1994. “It would have been a long tortuous process — the indictment, the trial, probably a conviction on some counts, an appeal. That would have taken two, three, maybe four years. That would only have exacerbated the unrest and the domestic trouble here in the United States, and the only way to get that whole problem off my desk in the Oval Office, the only way for me to concentrate 100 percent of my time on the problems of 240 million Americans, was to grant the pardon.”

While Nixon avoided impeachment, just under five years after Ford spoke those words, President Bill Clinton — a Democrat who had been a houseguest of the Republican Ford in Beaver Creek — was narrowly impeached by the House for perjury and obstruction of justice in late 1998. Clinton, acquitted by the Senate in early 1999, was only the second president to be impeached. Both he and Andrew Johnson in 1868 were acquitted by the Senate and stayed in office.

That is the likely scenario in 2020 if the House impeaches Trump, who is the only president facing impeachment who is running for a second term (Johnson sought the Democratic nomination in 1868 but was rebuffed by his party, and Clinton was term-limited).

Should articles of impeachment against Trump be approved by the Democrat-controlled House, a two-thirds majority is needed in the Senate to remove an impeached president, and Republicans largely loyal to Trump currently control the Senate.

Price of impeachment politics

In the 2016 election, Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points over Trump in Colorado. Asked why Republicans seeking reelection in Colorado would choose to defend the president in the impeachment inquiry, Metropolitan State University of Denver Professor and Chair of Political Science Robert Preuhs said it’s likely a purely political calculation.

“All Republicans, including [Sen. Cory] Gardner and [U.S. Rep. Scott] Tipton. know that [impeachment is] just not going to get the two-thirds majority in the Senate,” Preuhs said. “And so what you do is you play the game as much as you can in terms of public perception, knowing that the outcome is that Trump will remain president and run in 2020.

“So you don’t want to piss off the president, partly because he has a lot of money and has a lot of sway within the electorate, and while it’s kind of late for a legitimate primary challenge, if you don’t back the president, there’s a real chance that you will get a challenger in the primary and that could cost you your seat,” Preuhs added.

Tipton, who represents the western two-thirds of Eagle County in his massive Western Slope and southern Colorado district, is, in fact, the honorary co-chair of the Trump 2020 campaign in Colorado. The five-term congressman from Cortez, seeking reelection in a fairly safe GOP district, put out a statement on Nov. 1 criticizing the impeachment inquiry process after the House approved a resolution setting up the overall process and next phase of public testimony.

Gardner, considered one of the most endangered Republican senators in 2020, has declined to say whether it’s appropriate for a president to ask for foreign help in a U.S. election. He has supported a partisan Senate resolution criticizing the House inquiry, but says he takes the issue seriously and “to not fall for the partisan talking points and make sure we end the political circus and actually have this done fairly and transparently.”

The Colorado delegation was split 4-3 in favor on the House vote, with Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, whose mostly Front Range district includes the eastern third of Eagle County, joining his three fellow Democrats in moving the inquiry forward. Neguse, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, supported an impeachment inquiry in May after the Mueller report.

Metro State’s Preuhs says voters are far more polarized and entrenched in their partisan camps than they were during both modern inquiries into Nixon and Clinton, making impeachment politics a possibly permanent part of our political landscape going forward.

“Given this heightened polarization, it’s a real possibility that impeachment politics plays out this way [going forward], but ultimately, keep in mind that at some point there really is a desire among the public and voters not to change the results of elections,” Preuhs said.

“We saw that when it comes to some of the recent recall petitions [against Democrat state lawmakers] in Colorado for instance, and the heightened fight mentality, while it’s acceptable if it’s policy, at some point I think grows old with voters …,” Preuhs added.

The price of presidential impeachment politics for the two parties is unclear at this point, partly because there’s so little history to go on.

Following Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and acquittal in the Senate in 1999, Republicans paid a short-term price in Congress but wound up winning the White House in 2000 with President George W. Bush. Following Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s subsequent pardon in 1974, Democrats wound up winning the White House with President Jimmy Carter in 1976.

“The pardon had no impact on how I conducted my responsibilities as president,” Ford told the Vail Daily after Nixon’s death in 1994. “It undoubtedly was one of several major factors in my defeat in 1976. I only lost by a handful of votes, figuratively speaking, so there were people then and maybe some today who never forgave me for pardoning President Nixon, but a president has to do what he believes to be right and not what is politically expedient. And by doing what I thought was right … it was a way to handle a very tough problem so I could concentrate on the major challenges that I faced in the Oval Office at home and abroad.”

Support Local Journalism