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Impeachment Precedent: Lessons from the Nixon and Clinton Administrations

By Yong Kwon, Soojin Hwang, and Rachel Kirsch 

The ongoing confrontation between the White House and U.S. Congress will likely engross President Donald Trump’s political attention in the months ahead. Given his central role in executing highly delicate negotiations with North Korea and high-stakes face-off over trade with China, the impeachment inquiry may affect the U.S. government’s execution of foreign policy. Two most recent cases of impeachment proceedings against an incumbent president provide insights into what domestic and international observers could expect going forward. 

Reviewing developments during the Nixon and Clinton administrations, domestic political scrutiny did not affect broader foreign policy visions. Simultaneously, the gravity of the foreign policy challenges confronting the respective administrations provided the White House with little cover from the legislature’s hostilities. Notably, already-empowered figures in both administrations enjoyed greater latitude to execute policies while the impeachment proceedings distracted Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. However, these figures could not substitute the president’s role in mobilizing intra-governmental coordination. 

While the inquiry against the Trump administration is taking place in a very different political environment than what the Nixon and Clinton administrations faced, these cases provide a glimpse into what may be on the horizon.

On execution of foreign policy: Under Nixon and Clinton, key diplomatic engagements continued unabated during their respective impeachment proceedings. However, Congress placed more stringent oversight on foreign policy issues that had been flashpoints between the legislature and executive before impeachment proceedings, particularly areas that involved the allocation of resources. 

Despite the start of impeachment proceedings against Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee on May 9, 1974, the administration concluded an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in June 1974. The Threshold Test Ban Treaty was accompanied by other agreements with Moscow that strengthened bilateral economic cooperation. Many conservative and liberal lawmakers expressed wariness towards Nixon’s easing of hostilities with the Soviet Union, but Congress did not (or could not) impede the administration’s engagements. 

However, Congress confronted the Nixon administration on long-standing disagreements. Notably, lawmakers rejected the Nixon administration’s request in 1974 to raise the ceiling on military assistance to South Vietnam. This was an extension of an ongoing dispute between the executive and legislature over U.S. commitment in Southeast Asia. As early as June 1973, when the investigation into Watergate had just started, Congress imposed a ban on any future U.S. military action in the region. 

Similarly, Clinton undertook significant foreign policy measures while facing an adversarial Congress. He led negotiations between Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in October 1998 despite the House of Representatives authorizing an impeachment inquiry earlier that month. 

Congress too acted more assertively to elevate its long-standing positions while the White House faced mounting public pressure. In September 1998, after Clinton publicly admitted that he had an affair, Congress blocked the administration’s request for increased funding for the International Monetary Fund to assist the containment of the Asian Financial Crisis. U.S. financial support had been a contentious issue that preceded the scandal. In December 1997, Clinton himself had called on Asian economies affected by the crisis to adopt greater macroprudential discipline as a condition for receiving external financial assistance. 

President’s use of foreign policy as a distraction from impeachment: Successive American presidents have been accused of employing foreign policy to distract the public from domestic challenges. Nixon and Clinton’s detractors also floated this theory during their respective impeachment proceedings. In both cases, however, foreign policy crises did not contribute to ameliorating the level of public scrutiny against the White House. 

The Nixon administration faced myriad foreign crises between 1972 and 1974, but Congress refused to be distracted from the ongoing investigation into the Watergate break-in. In fact, Congressman Less Aspin introduced legislation in April 1974 to preempt any efforts by Nixon “[to play] fast and loose with our national security during an impeachment trial.” This conscious bifurcation of foreign and domestic challenges by the legislature may have contributed to the impeachment inquiry continuing unabated through North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive against South Vietnam, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1973 oil crisis. 

Similarly, the Clinton administration’s decision to conduct airstrikes against Iraq in December 1998 delayed the impeachment vote from coming to the floor for four days but did not prevent the legislature from taking action indefinitely.  

Shift in foreign policymaking authority: When Nixon and Clinton faced impeachment proceedings, key figures in the administration were elevated to take the lead on foreign policy while the Oval Office focused on mounting a defense. However, these figures could not completely substitute for the president. Government resources could not be efficiently allocated to advance foreign policy aims because empowered personnel could not subordinate other federal agencies and their interests easily without central guidance from the president. 

During the Watergate scandal, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was given so much authority that Washington Post correspondent Chalmers Roberts described him as a “surrogate president for foreign affairs.” Similarly, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was empowered to address the Asian Financial Crisis while Clinton dealt with the political blowback from his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Both figures, however, had a narrow purview and needed the support of other agencies to achieve policy objectives (i.e. aid to Israel in 1973 and pressure on Indonesia to adopt economic reforms in 1998). The president’s role remained essential.

These cases took place in their unique political environments and cannot be directly superimposed on ongoing developments. For example, both Nixon and Clinton enjoyed higher approval ratings than Trump when they initially faced their impeachment inquiries. Moreover, the impeachment proceedings against the two erstwhile presidents were not directly linked to their conduct of foreign policy, insulating this space from political scrutiny. In addition, Secretaries Kissinger and Rubin had been empowered before the crisis and carried the confidence of their peers in the administration. It is unclear if the same could be said about figures in the incumbent administration. Trump’s diminishing approval rating, the focus of the impeachment inquiry on his handling of foreign affairs, and the potential implication of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the scandal all point to a potential amplification of the challenges to the administration’s execution of foreign policy.

These caveats make the current crisis against Trump a unique case. Nonetheless, history shows what avenues might both constrain and sustain the administration’s ability to execute foreign policy. 

Yong Kwon is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Soojin Hwang and Rachel Kirsch are currently Interns at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo via the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain/CC0.

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