Impeachments past and present

Even though “all politics is local,” we do have impeachment hearings going on.

The US Constitution says that “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” (II.4).

What does this mean? “High crimes and misdemeanors” are somewhat in the eye of the beholder; and Nancy Pelosi has shown the way to using the term “bribery” rather than “quid pro quo,” while the term “collusion,” which Donald Trump favored in replying to the Mueller report, is not a constitutional or legal term at all.

Easier to grasp is the President’s duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” (II.3). And Congress’s job is to make the laws.

Let’s look historically at presidential impeachments, because precedent (except to a few US Supreme Court justices) is the major guide to applying the Constitution.

In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached for violating a law that forbade the president from dismissing without the Senate’s approval an office-holder who had been appointed with the Senate’s advice and consent. That Tenure of Office Act would make things very different in the Trump administration, with its constant turnover, but the law was in effect only from 1867-87. The eleventh of the eleven articles of impeachment brought against Johnson has a quaint but suddenly relevant resonance today: “Bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions.” The full background was 3 years of increasing hostility (coincidentally or not, just like today) between the US House and the President, largely over Johnson’s attempts to sabotage reconstruction of the South along Republican principles (that was back when Republicans opposed discrimination and favored votes by black citizens). The House impeached Johnson but the Senate fell one vote short of conviction.

In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him, as he finally understood that it was certain to do. The triggering event, the Watergate break-in and coverup, can be compared to Russia and WikiLeaks illegally obtaining and releasing files belonging to the Democratic National Committee. In addition, the charge that the President failed to produce documents required by the House Judiciary Committee is highly relevant today, since Trump is doing the same by trying to prevent US officials from cooperating with the investigation.

For context, in 1981 the Reagan administration began surreptitiously selling arms, via Israel, to Iran in violation of a Congressional embargo. This arrangement morphed into a plan to supply arms to the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras, also in violation of Congressional action. Reagan was not impeached for violating the express will of Congress, even though his administration, like Nixon’s and Trump’s, withheld documents requested by Congress. As has been the Trump pattern, several individuals associated with the actions were indicted and convicted, though George Bush I later pardoned them (another concept to keep our sights on today). Reagan, like Trump then in his 70s, was skilled at sounding vague, and in fact does seem to have been in early stages of Alzheimer’s, although unlike Trump he remained quite popular with the public generally.

Finally, in 1998-99 Bill Clinton was impeached, but nowhere near the required 2/3 of Senators voted to convict him. The charges, lying under oath and obstruction of justice regarding one matter, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, seem rather quaint in the Age of Trump. The usual allegations, that a president ignored and thwarted the will of Congress or exhibited a pattern of corruptness, did not seem to apply.

Takeaways for today, I think, are

• Political climate matters; congress would hesitate to impeach a popular president.

• To be effective, individual charges need to be couched in a context of abuse of office, such as “bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions,” a phrase that seems nicely attuned to daily news for the past three. years.

• Although it is true that the government routinely engages in quid pro quo (AKA treaties, agreements, diplomatic understandings) with foreign countries, quid pro quo for personal gain is a different matter. Even Nixon was not accused of seeking financial gain, only personal political gain in the measure that the Watergate break-in was aimed at finding insider information about what Democrats knew and were planning.

In the case of Trump, the intended gain was to defeat a prospective political opponent with help from Ukraine in 2019, and (as investigated in the Mueller Report) from Russia and WikiLeaks in 2016. Trump has also been accused of seeking personal financial gain, for himself directly and through his family, from violating the emoluments clause that “…no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust… shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State” (I.9).

In addition, it would not be surprising to learn that actual or hoped-for Trump enterprises in Turkey, Russia, or elsewhere stood to gain financially from his presidency. Two possibly relevant projects from over ten years ago have already surfaced: “Trump’s company considered at least two developments in Ukraine — a hotel and golf course in Kyiv and a hotel and yacht club in the seaside city of Yalta, which is now part of the Russian-annexed area of Crimea” (from Anita Kumar, “Before his claims of corruption, Trump tried to build a resort in Ukraine,” Politico, 11/4/19. If any secret negotiations involving US foreign policy have gone on, similar to the current Ukraine imbroglio, that will give a whole new impetus to impeachment proceedings.

Divided though Americans may be since 2016, I think it is safe to say that using taxpayer funds and US foreign policy for personal gain are not concepts that, in the abstract, the public will ever approve of.

Photo by Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons: Lenin embankment, Yalta, Crimea. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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