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How Minnesota Republicans came around on impeaching Nixon

The president’s fate was sealed when evidence convinced his fellow Republicans to abandon him. 

President Richard Nixon
Over the spring and summer of 1974, evidence implicating President Richard Nixon in the Watergate cover-up began to mount.
Courtesy of The Nixon Library and Museum

Al Quie was “on the fence.” So were his House colleagues, Bill Frenzel and John Zwach,  according to Frank Wright. 

Wright, the Minneapolis Tribune’s Washington Bureau Chief, had interviewed the three Minnesota Republicans on August 3, 1974, just days after the House Judiciary Committee voted to bring articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon to the full House. Now, the three members of the president’s party faced the prospect of an uncomfortable impeachment vote on the House floor.

 “Quie, Frenzel and Zwach are typical of that large group of Republicans members who are withholding their support from Mr. Nixon but unwilling at this time to plunge their daggers into him,” Wright told his readers.   

On August 3, the daggers may not have been ready to plunge, but two days later, they were unsheathed when a White House tape recording, delivered to Congress on orders from the U.S. Supreme Court, showed that Nixon had, in fact, ordered a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. 

Initiating the inquiry

Six months earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives launched an impeachment inquiry in formal terms when it adopted House Resolution 803 on February 6. That action authorized the Judiciary Committee to determine whether there were sufficient grounds to impeach Nixon of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Minnesota’s Republican House members voted for the resolution, which passed with an overwhelming majority of 410 to 4.

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Later in February, Frenzel, Quie and Zwach, along with Minnesota’s fourth House Republican, Ancher Nelson, used an interview with the Minneapolis Star’s Peter Vaughn to assure their fellow Republicans back home in Minnesota that their vote on H Res 803 did not represent a vote in favor of impeachment. The four congressional representatives told Vaugh that, while the inquiry might move ahead, they did not believe enough evidence had been gathered to justify an impeachment action by the full House. 

Al Quie
Al Quie
Zwach, then in his final House term, was the most outspoken, “Would I vote for impeachment on what I know now? I say a resounding ‘no.’”  

Quie was more circumspect, saying that he would keep an open mind until Judiciary Committee reported to the full House. He and Frenzel both indicated their discomfort with the view of many impeachment advocates who maintained that the president should be held accountable for the illegal actions of his subordinates. Both believed that criminal actions by subordinates should not be considered an impeachable offense.

Earlier in the month, in a separate interview with the Tribune’s Findlay Lewis, Frenzel said he thought the Democratic-controlled House would vote to impeach Nixon but he would vote against it, “I would like to see a bill first,” Frenzel said.” But my own inclination, based on the evidence and my own narrow definition of an impeachable offense is that I would vote ‘no.’“ 

Mounting evidence

Over the spring and summer of 1974, evidence implicating Nixon in the Watergate cover-up began to mount, adding to the discomfort of moderate Republicans like Frenzel and Quie. In March, a D.C. grand jury indicted four of the president’s closest advisors. The four men — John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman and Charles Colson — were charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying under oath. 

Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel
Then, on July 24, the U.S. Supreme Court, rejecting Nixon’s claim of executive privilege, ordered the White House to turn over to Congress audio tapes subpoenaed by  the House Judiciary Committee. For two weeks the White House withheld the tapes, which recorded Nixon’s conversations with his top aides about Watergate. On August 5, the administration reluctantly complied with the court order and  delivered the tapes to Capitol Hill. They provided the smoking gun that impeachment advocates had long sought — indisputable evidence that Nixon had ordered the FBI to abandon its investigation of the Watergate break-in.

Even before the smoking gun was revealed, a nationwide survey conducted by Gallup in early August indicated that 64 percent of the American people favored Nixon’s impeachment, a 13 percent percent increase from a similar poll taken earlier in the summer. While 76 percent of Democratic voters called for impeachment, even 41 percent of Republican voters supported this move.

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By now, Nixon’s support from even his most steadfast congressional allies was evaporating. Only days earlier, the Minnesota’s Republican House members had equivocated when asked if they supported impeachment. On August 6, the Minneapolis Star’s Jim Shoop reported  that the state’s four Republican House members — Quie, Frenzel, Zwach and Nelson — were “moving strongly” in that direction. Of the four, Quie was the most direct, telling Shoop, “We have been given the final evidence that the Judiciary Committee was looking for, of obstruction of justice, which is an impeachable offense.” Frenzel maintained that Nixon had, “in effect, pleaded guilty to Article I (obstruction of justice) and probably Article II, as well. I don’t see how anyone in the House could vote against it.”

John Zwach
John Zwach
Zwach signaled that he was also leaning toward a “yes” vote. “If there is hard factual evidence that he (Nixon) tried to cover up, then my constitutional oath would  demand it. But I am a juror in this thing and I want to see the hard evidence for myself.” Even Ancher Nelson, formerly a staunch opponent of impeachment, indicated that he was changing his view. He issued a statement, saying “it appears to be necessary for all of us to reassess our position relative to the presidents’ case.” 

Finally,  on August 9,  the four Minnesotans and their House Republican colleagues were spared  a painful vote on the House floor when Nixon resigned, becoming the first and  the only U.S. President thus far to take that step.