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Historical Look at Impeachment

Historical Look at Impeachment

With all the talk of impeachment, it is time once again to explain exactly what impeachment is and also to look at it historically.  The important things to remember are that, one, impeachment does not mean removing a sitting president; two, we have never removed a president before; and three, impeachment is very difficult because it is political.  Both impeached presidents actually did what they were accused of, but neither were removed.  

First things first, Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution reads, “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  The tricky part of the clause is impeached for and CONVICTION of.  It is a two-part process; you are first impeached and, second, put on trial.  The House of Representatives impeaches a president and then the Senate, with the Chief Justice presiding, conducts the trial.  

Two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, but neither were removed for office.  I can already hear the question, so I will answer it.  Richard Nixon was not impeached; he resigned.  He probably would have been impeached and probably would have been convicted.  However, I use the word probably because in politics we never really know.  Again, I believe both Johnson and Clinton did what they were accused of, yet neither was removed.  

First, let us look at the example most are unfamiliar with, Andrew Johnson.  Johnson became president after the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Johnson was in a difficult circumstance; he was not Lincoln’s V.P. for his first term and was brought in to help Lincoln secure votes for reelection.  What made Johnson interesting was that he was a slave-holding Democrat from Tennessee, who believed secession was illegal.  The Democrats were arguing for peace, so Lincoln hoped that Johnson would secure possible northern Democratic voters who wanted to continue prosecution the Civil War.

Johnson was never supposed to reach the highest office but when he did the Republicans, who controlled the Congress, feared Johnson’s lenience on the South after the war, as well as replacing Lincoln’s Republican cabinet with Democrats.  To prevent the first, Congress made sure he could not do the latter.  In 1867 Congress passed, over Johnson’s veto, the Tenure of Office Act that stated the president could not remove any member of his cabinet without Senate approval.  When the president fought with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over the army’s role in Reconstruction, Johnson replaced him.  Johnson was hoping this would challenge the Act and take it to the Supreme Court.  Instead, the Congress acted first and brought up articles of impeachment.  

Long story short, Johnson broke the law, one later repealed, but he still broke the law as it currently stood.  When the Senate voted, they fell one vote short of the required vote for conviction.  All the Democrats and enough Republicans felt the trial was a sham.

It took 102 years for the next impeachment hearings.  In 1998, the House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton.  The charges were lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice.  Kenneth Starr, a special prosecutor investigating Clinton for the Paula Jones and Whitewater scandals, learned of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.  Lewinsky, allegedly instructed by the president, filed an affidavit in which she denied ever having had a sexual relationship with him.  Clinton then denied the affair to a grand jury.  When Lewinsky later changed her testimony, Clinton was forced to admit the affair and the House started to debate impeachment.

After a five-week trial, the Senate acquitted Clinton on both charges.  Officially, the acquittal came because of legal wrangling over the definition of sex.  Unofficially, it is because the American people saw this trial more about the morality of an affair than the legality of lying.  Immorality was superseded by a strong economy and politics. 

If Watergate happened after the Clinton trial, maybe Nixon would have remained in office and fought his removal.  With only the Johnson precedent, Nixon probably felt his presidency was doomed.  Yet what we see is that politics are fickle.  Like it or not, in my opinion both previous presidents broke the law.  In both cases, the party that brought the charges had the majority in the Senate, yet they were unable to get a conviction.  Therefore, what history tells us is that even if Democrats win the House and the Senate in the midterm elections, it is not a foregone conclusion that Trump will be impeached. And if he is, there is no guarantee of conviction.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.   To follow Historically Speaking on Facebook search for @jamesWfinck

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