Could what happened in Benghazi lead to an impeachment of the president? Based on existing evidence it could — largely because impeachment and allegations of misbehavior have become the Godwin's Law of national politics. As described by its creator, a man named Mike Godwin, the law states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." Godwin explained the rationale in an interview with New York in March. Asked if he'd use the same definition today:
The only thing I would say it turns out not to be limited to online discussions. Other than that, it still seems to have some observational value. It’s the worst thing anybody can think of, so if you have some kind of rhetorical escalation with someone you disagree with, it’s sort of easy to go there if you’re not very reflective about what you’re saying.
When you're trying to win a heated rhetorical point, it's very hard for the rhetoric not to escalate. The worst scandal in modern American political history is Watergate — a sitting president conspiring to break the law and cover up his crimes. Therefore, in order to disparage a president, it's helpful if his crimes can be portrayed as worse than Watergate. It is politically helpful if you can suggest that what he's done rises to the highest level of reprimand. Obama's critics have previously suggested that the Department of Justice's "Fast and Furious" or calls for new gun control measures have warranted the consideration of impeachment. If you want to say that you disagree with what the president is doing, and you want to make it stick, you say it may be an impeachable offense. It's worse than the worst thing you can imagine.
At issue is the administration's behavior in the aftermath of the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya — or, for some, the lead-up to it. Attention to the situation has steadily ramped up over the past few months, fueled heavily by right-wing media attention. The House Committee on Oversight held hearings last week offering testimony from "whistleblowers;" on Friday, ABC released drafts of talking points that demonstrated how various claims had been edited out.
The first mention of impeachment from a sitting member of Congress over Benghazi came before that. On Thursday, Oklahoma's energetic senator James Inhofe brought the idea up on "The Rusty Humphries Show." The Hill transcribed the conversation. Inhofe first called Benghazi perhaps the "greatest cover-up in American history," then continuing:
“People may be starting to use the I-word before too long,” Inhofe said.
“The I-word meaning impeachment?” Humphries asked.
“Yeah,” Inhofe responded.
Inhofe was hardly the first to suggest that impeachment was possible. Earlier in the week, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee offered it as a possibility, including the now-common argument that Benghazi was worse than Watergate. Breitbart.com reported on his comments:
It wasn’t minor when Richard Nixon lied to the American people and worked within those in his administration to cover up what really happened in Watergate. But, I remind you, as bad as Watergate was, because it broke the trust between the president and the people, no one died. This is more serious because four Americans did in fact die.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina declared that Benghazi wasn't really like Watergate, it was more like Iran-Contra. Rep. Steve King of Iowa thinks it's more of a combination of them all: “I believe that it’s a lot bigger than Watergate, and if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.”
John McCain, asked about the issue on ABC yesterday, said he didn't know "what level of scandal, unquote, this rises to," but that a "select committee" was needed to interview those involved. In other words: Attention to the issue is likely only to grow — particularly given the involvement of Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency.
Sen. Graham speaks during the
impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, 1999.
So what would it take for Obama to face impeachment? Technically just a simple majority vote in the House of Representatives. Article Two of the Constitution articulates the standard: "The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The standard for an impeachable offense is obviously and notoriously vague. Treason and bribery are pretty straightforward. "High crimes and misdemeanors" isn't. Only two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives (perhaps not the two you're thinking of), both for "high crimes and misdemeanors." In 1999, President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and obstruction of justice. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached for a variety of things, including disparaging Congress. (Nixon resigned before being impeached for his role in Watergate.)
Then there's that second distinction, between "impeachment for" and "conviction of." Impeachment doesn't necessarily result in a removal from office. The House votes to impeach, on a majority vote. The articles of impeachment then go to the Senate, where the president is tried. If convicted in the Senate by a two-third majority, he or she is removed from office. The Senate vote for Johnson was only one shy of that majority; only 50 senators voted to convict Clinton.
In other words, impeachment has a safety valve. Impeachment allows for stern expressions of disapproval, without necessarily throwing the government into the chaos of a transition of power. This wasn't necessarily the intent of the framers of the Constitution, but it's certainly a political possibility. This morning, Politico reported that John Boehner, who'd previously been unenthusiastic about Benghazi, was secretly pulling strings in the background — a sure sign the Speaker of the House thinks this critique has legs, only 18 months before important House elections.
The timing should seem familiar. In the first year of his second term, revelations about Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light. The Republican-majority House voted to impeach him shortly before the next year's elections; the less-heavily Republican-majority Senate declined to remove him from office. Between those two votes, there was a clear sign that the American people were far less incensed than the House. A month after its vote were the 1998 midterm elections. The Democrats picked up five seats. The Senate held its vote, and Clinton left office with the highest approval ratings of any president since World War II.
But then, Lewinsky wasn't as bad as Watergate.