Removing a U.S. President Without an Election

Five times in the last ninety years, elements of the U.S. power structure have tried to oust a sitting president without an election. The efforts were aimed at Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Two attempts succeeded and three failed.

Franklin Roosevelt

President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 as the Great Depression was battering much of the world. Workers were striking, organizing unions, and escalating their demands. Fascists had taken power in Italy and Germany and were threatening to do so elsewhere.

Prominent Wall Street bankers and industrialists said the only way to keep communism at bay was to adopt fascism and align with Italy and Germany. Roosevelt rejected that view, and the plotting began.

The plan was to have 500,000 World War I veterans march on Washington, D.C. They would overwhelm the city, reduce Roosevelt to a figurehead, and transfer power to the Wall Street plotters.

They decided Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, then the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, should lead the coup. This was a mistake. When their emissary told Butler what they had in mind, and said they could raise $300 million for it, he said, “If you get 500,000 soldiers advocating anything smelling of Fascism, I am going to get 500,000 more and lick the hell out of you and we will have a real war right at home.”

After Butler chewed them out, he reported everything to the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, including the plotters’ names he knew, officials with J.P. Morgan & Company, Guaranty Trust Company, Dupont Chemical, Singer Sewing Machine Company, and the Remington Arms Company. They all denied it, but Butler had convinced the Committee it was true.

Roosevelt did not want a public confrontation, so the House Committee quietly wrapped up its work. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatched agents to tell each plotter they would be under surveillance for treasonous activities. The plot was shelved.

The lesson of this fiasco was money isn’t everything. The Wall Street titans had no experience with overthrowing a U.S. president. They had no operational arm. They did not know where to start.

John Kennedy

By the time President Kennedy took office in 1961, the military budget had grown twenty times larger in real dollars than in 1933. The money was paying for a military-industrial complex, including the Pentagon, weapons manufacturers, State Department, CIA, FBI, NSA, Atomic Energy Commission, NASA, Members of Congress, think tanks, universities, and a battalion of friendly reporters. The sprawling power system had become strong enough to perpetuate itself and to remove a president if necessary.

What the Pentagon and CIA wanted first from President Kennedy was the overthrow of the new socialist Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. They organized an assault by Cuban exiles, assuring Kennedy it would spark a successful anti-Castro uprising in Cuba. When it did not, they demanded Kennedy send in U.S. combat forces. He refused, and the Cuban army captured 1,110 Cuban exiles and killed another 114. The Bay of Pigs invasion became known as the “Bay of Pigs fiasco.” Kennedy realized the Pentagon and CIA had known all along the exiles could not succeed on their own. They had tried to trick him into a direct U.S. invasion.

Kennedy fired both CIA Director Allen Dulles and his chief Bay of Pigs planner, Richard Bissell, and threatened to “shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”

CIA leaders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Defense Department were livid and continued to press him to authorize a U.S. invasion of Cuba. With the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, they saw a perfect opportunity for it. Again, Kennedy refused.

The next year, 1963, a fusillade of bullets removed Kennedy from office. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, promptly appointed the blue-ribbon Warren Commission to figure out who did it. The Commission’s day-to-day work was led by Allen Dulles, the former CIA Director JFK had fired. In the end, the Commission report declared the assassination to be the work of a deranged loner, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Most Americans were not convinced. In every one of nine Gallup polls taken since 1963, a majority of respondents have said they thought others had been involved in a conspiracy. Of the four people who knew the most about what happened — Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Fidel Castro – none agreed with the Warren Commission report.

If it was not just one loner, who was in on the conspiracy? We may never know all the details of this very cold case, such as the name of the person who fired the fatal bullet. We have learned some things, however. The easiest of these is that the CIA was involved in the Kennedy assassination at every juncture, from preparation to execution to the cover-up.

Not only was the CIA everywhere, they had ample motive, namely Kennedy’s refusal to invade Cuba. And, unlike the Wall Street plotters of the 1930s, they had experience with covert operations, overthrowing governments, and assassinating leaders. That is what the CIA was created to do.

It is not necessary to prove the triggerman was employed by the CIA, or CIA leaders made a formal decision to kill the president, or everyone in the CIA even knew what was happening, or no one else was involved, to realize the CIA was heavily involved.

Richard Nixon

The Watergate story is familiar. President Richard Nixon ordered his staff to commit crimes and cover them up. Two budding Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposed him. Nixon resigned and left town in disgrace before Congress could impeach and remove him.

The story came from Woodward and Bernstein’s articles and their book, All the President’s Men (1974). Actor Robert Redford then turned it into a popular movie with the same name (1976).


In the following decades, however, this satisfying morality play has been undermined by 2,000 pages of investigative books by Jim Hougan (Secret Agenda, 1984), Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin (Silent Coup, 1991), James Rosen (The Strong Man, 2008), Russ Baker (Family of Secrets, 2009), Phil Stanford (White House Call Girl, 2013), Tim Weiner (One Man Against the World, 2015) and Ray Locker (Nixon’s Gamble, 2016; Haig’s Coup, 2019).

Each examined Watergate from a different angle and found new clues to what happened. Adding all these clues creates a quite different story, showing how thoroughly the military industrial complex dominates Washington.

If you made a chart of the newly discovered CIA and Pentagon links to Watergate, it would fill a large wall. To put it another way, if you remove the CIA and the Pentagon from the story, Nixon would have completed his second term and retired with dignity.

Watergate really started in 1969, on Nixon’s first day in office. The President and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, cut the Department of Defense, State Department, and the CIA out of foreign policy decision-making. The two men brought all policymaking into the National Security Council in the White House. They would often not inform the three main foreign policy agencies about policy changes until the last minute, fearing leaks or sabotage.

Predictably, this created chronic bureaucratic warfare between the three agencies and the White House. When there were disagreements about policy, there was no way to resolve them. Spying and leaking inevitably followed. In turn, Nixon and Kissinger told the agencies even less.

Left out in the cold, the Pentagon and the CIA moved against Nixon.

To see how this wasn’t apparent from the Woodward and Bernstein story, consider the man who was the reporters’ pipeline to the truth, a secret source called Deep Throat. Finally, in 2005, Woodward said it was former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. Nixon had rejected Felt for the top FBI spot when long time Director J. Edgar Hoover died, so he had a plausible motive.

The mystery seemed solved, except the revisionist histories had already shown Felt was only one of many sources giving the two reporters damaging information on Nixon. Deep Throat was actually a composite character, and the bombshell stories mostly originated in two places, the Department of Defense and the CIA. These were the very agencies with which Nixon and Kissinger had been at war.

By 1974, with his trusted advisors gone, Nixon found himself relying on two Pentagon officials to help him avoid removal from office. They were Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig, most recently Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and J. Fred Buzhardt, who was both Special White House Counsel for Watergate Matters and General Counsel for the Department of Defense.

Not surprisingly, these two military men spent months maneuvering Nixon into deeper trouble. After the House Judiciary Committee sent impeachment articles to the House floor, Nixon knew the House would impeach him and the Senate would convict and remove him. Nixon resigned.

Bill Clinton

In 1998, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice concerning his sexual exploitation of a 22-year-old White House intern. The case then went to the U.S. Senate, where the Constitution required a two-thirds vote of the Senators present to convict and remove Clinton. The two impeachment articles failed, and Clinton completed his second term.

Why did the Republicans fail? In the Senate, the Republican advantage was only 55-45, well short of the 67-vote supermajority needed to convict and remove Clinton.

Since Bill Clinton was not at odds with the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, or any other power center, the GOP couldn’t count on help persuading Democratic Senators to vote for removal. In fact, the core of Clinton’s agenda matched the 1992 Republican platform, favoring NAFTA, tough criminal sentencing, ending welfare, NATO expansion, a hard line on Cuba, and so on. The GOP knew the prospects in the Senate were hopeless.

The impeachment of Clinton, then, was not a genuine attempt to remove him. It was merely a partisan exercise in muddying up the Democrats as the 2000 election approached.

Donald Trump

The attempt to remove Donald Trump, called Russiagate, began as a 2016 campaign attack by Hillary Clinton. The charges against him continued in the press after Election Day, and ever since. In 2019, Democrats took a variation on Russiagate, called Ukrainegate, and used it to impeach Trump in the House of Representatives. The GOP-controlled Senate inevitably did not convict him. It ended up as a replay of the Clinton impeachment. Trump stayed in the Oval Office.

What exactly was the Democrats’ plan? A successful Senate vote was never possible, so why would the Democrats devote three and a half years just to get an impeachment without removal?

From their actions, it appears the Democrats were fixed on Watergate as the model for ousting a president without an election.

That would be understandable. All but one of the top Democratic politicians in 2016 had been young adults during Watergate. In 1974, Bill Clinton was 28, Hillary Clinton was 27, Nancy Pelosi was 34, Harry Reid was 35, Chuck Schumer was 24, Joe Biden was 31, John Podesta was 25, and David Axelrod was 19. They were absorbing the Watergate story every day. The exception, Barack Obama, was only 13 at the time. Watergate would be their frame of reference.

Accordingly, the Democrats staged a Watergate-style morality play, with Donald Trump playing the role of Richard Nixon. It was complete with a flow of shocking revelations, dramatic Congressional hearings, a Special Counsel, indictment of underlings who could be squeezed for evidence against higher-ups, watching the president’s poll ratings skid, disapproving newspaper editorials, and peeling off votes of Republican Senators. All this was supposed to result in the president’s resignation or impeachment and removal.

It did not work.

One problem was the series of bombshell news stories coming from unnamed intelligence sources. These included the DNC hack, local election board tampering, the Christopher Steele Dossier, St. Petersburg click-bait factory, sabotaging the Vermont utility grid, and so on. One after another the stories collapsed, usually for lack of evidence.

In addition, the president’s favorability ratings did not plummet as they had during Watergate. Richard Nixon’s approval rating fell from 67% in January 1973 to 24% by the time he resigned. By contrast, Donald Trump’s approval rating, 45% in January 2017, had only fallen to 44% by the time of his impeachment.

The underlying problem was the Democrats did not understand Watergate. They thought Nixon was foiled by tenacious crusading reporters and their savvy editor. In fact, Nixon ran afoul of the military industrial complex, which guided the press to the outcome it wanted.

In the case of Trump, the Pentagon, CIA, and the rest understood how to manage the new president. They would tolerate his rally outbursts, NATO tantrums, and raving midnight tweets because they knew they could get what they wanted from him when it mattered.

While the Democrats labored to portray Trump as soft on Russia, his actual policies have been in line with the bi-partisan foreign policy consensus to give the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers what they want. This includes sharp increases in overall military spending, a trillion dollars in new nuclear weapons, new types of nuclear weapons, destroying a series of U.S.-Russian arms control treaties, advancing NATO to the Russian border, tough economic sanctions on Russia, providing weapons to Ukraine and Poland to use against Russia, killing Russians in Syria, ejecting Russian diplomats from the United States, conducting war exercises on Russia’s border, and trying to stop Russian energy exports to Europe.

If the Democrats had understood Watergate, they would have noticed a key condition was missing: aggravated conflict between the president and the military-industrial complex. That is why the Democrats failed.

Of course, as 2020 election day approaches, President Trump has managed to create a triple crisis — his bungled COVID-19 response, the resulting economic paralysis, and his inciting a coast-to-coast police rampage — which may doom him with no effort by the Democrats. No one knows at this point.

It is fair to say, however, that if Trump can’t regain his composure and resolve his current clash with the Pentagon, he will be taught a cold lesson about power.

Paul Ryder has been research assistant to attorney Leonard Weinglass, Pentagon Papers Legal Defense; national staff, Indochina Peace Campaign; policy director for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste; and organizing director for Ohio Citizen Action. He is the principal author and editor of “The Good Neighbor Campaign Handbook” (2006) and co-editor with Susan Wind Early of “Tom Hayden on Social Movements” (2019).