Impeachments Reflect The Technology Of Their Times Each of the United States' four presidential impeachment proceedings has highlighted increasingly sophisticated technologies, beginning with telegrams in the case against Andrew Johnson.
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Presidential Impeachments Mirror Technological Advances; This Time, It's Smartphones

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Presidential Impeachments Mirror Technological Advances; This Time, It's Smartphones

Presidential Impeachments Mirror Technological Advances; This Time, It's Smartphones

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/787185291/789460028" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump - all presidents who have faced impeachment, and yet none of their cases are alike. But one thing all these impeachment sagas reflect is the technologies of their day. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Resetting evidence against President Trump at last week's House Judiciary Committee markup, Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline begins with a very 21st-century form of communication.

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DAVID CICILLINE: There are over 260 text messages.

WELNA: Some go to Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

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BILL TAYLOR: I received text messages on a three-way WhatsApp text conversation with ambassadors Volker and Sondland.

WELNA: WhatsApp - that's the encrypted text message app that's been around since 2009. It provides graphic evidence of key conversations surrounding Trump's now-infamous phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. And then there's the conversation overheard at a lunch table in Kyiv the day after the presidents speak.

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DAVID HOLMES: Ambassador Sondland placed a call on his mobile phone.

WELNA: That's foreign service officer David Holmes telling the House Intelligence Committee about the call Sondland makes to Trump using another recent innovation, the smartphone. Even the first presidential impeachment involves new technology.

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WELNA: Telegrams generated by the telegraph device, then two decades old, feature in Congress' 1868 attempt to remove President Andrew Johnson from office. In his defense, Johnson cites timestamps on telegrams sent to his ex-secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. Johnson argues Stanton was slow in keeping him apprised of a volatile situation in New Orleans, and thus deserves a dismissal that Congress considers illegal. He escapes conviction in the Senate by a single vote. Then, a full century later...

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PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.

WELNA: Richard Nixon resigns as president in 1974, barely two weeks after the Supreme Court orders the release of tapes of White House conversations. Like the five presidents before him, Nixon had made secret recordings. Their existence is revealed in the Senate Watergate hearings. Here's Chief Counsel Sam Dash questioning White House aide Alexander Butterfield.

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SAM DASH: There would be a tape recording with the president of that full conversation, would there not?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir.

WELNA: It's a bombshell moment. Suddenly, the voices of Nixon and others recorded on magnetic tape can actually reveal whether he tried to cover up a break in of the Democratic National Committee's office at the Watergate during his reelection campaign. Fast forward 24 years, and yet another president is battling charges of wrongdoing.

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PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.

WELNA: As he's speaking those words in the first days of a scandal that leads to his 1998 impeachment, President Bill Clinton likely is not aware of a certain piece of clothing.

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LINDA TRIPP: The navy-blue dress.

WELNA: That's Linda Tripp. She's a disgruntled white house aide. In a phone call that she secretly records, Tripp counsels Monica Lewinsky to preserve a navy-blue dress that has a semen stain. Tripp says her cousin, a genetic scientist, tells her a rape victim can now turn to a new technique for identifying the perpetrator.

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TRIPP: If she takes a wet Q-tip and lobs it on there and has a pin-prick side on the Q-tip, they can match the DNA.

WELNA: DNA and blood drawn from Clinton indeed does match DNA from Lewinsky's dress, according to the FBI. A technological advance, once again, impels an impeachment. Older technology does too. The presidential call at the center of the Trump impeachment inquiry, after all, was done with a device invented just eight years after Andrew Johnson's impeachment - the telephone.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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