Political Notebook

Is Congress going to impeach Donald Trump? This is what this presidential historian thinks

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss speaks at the Fresno State President’s Lecture Series event Monday night, April 30, 2018, at the Save Mart Center.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss speaks at the Fresno State President’s Lecture Series event Monday night, April 30, 2018, at the Save Mart Center. Special to The Bee

Will Congress impeach President Trump?

And what’s up with Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar and her tweet about the late first lady Barbara Bush?

The former was on the mind of an audience member Monday night after presidential historian and NBC contributor Michael Beschloss spoke at the Save Mart Center.

The latter was on Beschloss’ mind. He said he has followed the university’s response closely (president Joseph Castro announced last week that Jarrar won’t be fired). Beschloss called Jarrar’s comments were “disgraceful.”

Beschloss held a Q&A after his lecture, “Leadership in American Politics,” which largely dealt with examining former presidents and how their decisions in the White House defined their legacies. He also listed the qualities he said make a president succeed or fail.

The event was part of the President’s Lecture Series event which is now in its third year at Fresno State. The audience was allowed to submit questions for Beschloss to answer after his lecture. Several questions appeared to be about President Donald Trump, Beschloss said.

He picked the impeachment question and drew a big laugh by deadpanning, “Folks, my specialty is dead presidents.”

Getting serious, Beschloss said that whether or not Congress sets a vote to impeach Trump will depend on what is in the investigation report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Beschloss noted that the procedure for impeaching a president is largely unknown because there is no historical precedent.

“When a vote was taken in the judiciary committee in the house to impeach Richard Nixon – and it did get that far before he resigned – Democrats dominated the committee,” Beschloss said. “But it is said that when they voted they went backstage and a lot of those Democrats cried because they knew that impeachment was such a severe and overwhelming remedy.”

Mueller is investigating allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections. As he finished discussing the question on impeachment, Beschloss answered another question about where he would rank the Trump presidency if it were to end today.

Beschloss said that it’s not possible now to say exactly where Trump would fall in that list because there is still much unknown about the young presidency.

“We will know 40 years from now how Korea turned out,” Beschloss said. “Did it turn out in peace or war? We’ll know the same thing about the Middle East. There was a very important big tax bill that was voted during the last year. Whether you love it or hate it, 40 years from now we will know what the impact on the economy was.”

It was much easier for Beschloss to discuss presidents who no longer live or hold office. He focused on presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon to illustrate his discussion of what qualities and behaviors define a president as good or bad.

Among the qualities that Beschloss said make a president successful is courage to make unpopular decisions in difficult times. He referenced to 1863 when Lincoln struggled to end the Civil War as the Emancipation Proclamation was disputed but eventually became law and slaves were freed.

Beschloss said he has listened to about 700 hours of recorded conversations from Johnson’s time in the White House to gain insight into that administration. He said presidencies can’t be accurately judged without that kind of scrutiny.

“Things that we are obsessed with in real time oftentimes, I guarantee you, 40 years later will turn out to be trivial,” Beschloss said. “But also 40 years from now, things we think were hugely decisive or important may be things that we don’t really know about in real time, maybe a president isn’t even paying attention to.”

Though Beschloss thinks Johnson would be “horrified” to know the contents of his tapes were being discussed, he said examining historical artifacts such as tapes, national security records and documents of former presidents can give the public a better understanding of an American president.

Among the qualities that could cause failure for a president is to “kick the can down the road” on important issues, Beschloss said. When a president violates civil liberties, that can also mark failure, according to the historian. Johnson’s decision to go to war even as he privately remarked that there was no way to win the Vietnam conflict was a “monumental” mistake in that presidency, said Beschloss.

The Emmy-award winning historian encouraged the audience to always examine history to stay informed. He said that successful presidents must also have good knowledge of history. “All of the great ones did.”

Previous speakers in the lecture series include New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman; presidential historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin; and Robert Costa, a political reporter for The Washington Post and moderator for PBS’s Washington Week. The lecture was co-sponsored by The Bee, Valley PBS and KSEE 24.