Historical precedents for impeachment
Updated Dec. 17, 2019 — On Tuesday, Dec. 17, President Donald Trump denounced the House Impeachment as part of a “Partisan Impeachment Crusade” in a lengthy, stream-of-consciousness letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The six-page missive was released prior to the House voting on two articles of impeachment: Abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
With the vote on articles of impeachment scheduled for Dec. 18, Trump will become the third sitting president to be impeached (the first two being Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton).
As of Oct. 29, three more witnesses are set to testify before the House impeachment inquiry committees regarding Donald Trump’s quid pro quo conversation with Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. On Oct. 31, the House will vote to formalize impeachment procedures.
But exactly how does impeachment of an executive officer work? First, one must look to precedents set by past impeachments.
‘Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution…’
To date, Congress has successfully removed eight federal officials (all of whom were judges) via impeachment. And only two presidents have been formally impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
Now, a total of two sitting presidents have faced impeachment in the House of Representatives. They are Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, respectively.
Whereas Richard Nixon got drunk and talked to the ghosts of presidents past, Donald Trump appears to be content to go down with the ship.
Because he was a shrewd politician, Nixon resigned before he was able to be impeached.
Congress’ ability to impeach a president is directly expressed in Article II, Section IV of the US Constitution:
“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.”
One thing that readers must recall of the Constitution, however, is that it was written by men (who are fallible), by committee, in an extremely hot room, trying to reach a consensus on how to run a nascent government.
How does the process work?
It should also be noted that the framers of the Constitution geared the process to remove a sitting president to be rather difficult.
Impeachment begins with a formal inquiry in the House of Representatives. If the House Judiciary Committee finds sufficient grounds to proceed, they draw up articles of impeachment. These articles are then presented as a vote before the House.
If the House sees a majority (2/3) vote to remove the president formally, a final trial is held in the Senate. Despite what Trump may claim, the Supreme Court cannot intervene in this process in any way.
No president has ever been found guilty in a Senate trial. But Andrew Johnson was just one vote shy of doing so.
According to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC):
“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this Constitutional Republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
The first person to be successfully removed from office via impeachment was federal judge John Pickering in 1804. Pickering was an alcoholic and showed signs of early-stage dementia.
He would rant and rave from the bench (sounds familiar), and exhibited “loose morals and intemperance habits.” He was tried in absentia on March 12, 1804, and was subsequently removed from office.
During the 1974 House Judiciary Committee inquiry into Richard Nixon, executive abuse of power behaviors were further expressed three categories:
- Exceeding the Constitutional bounds of the office if derogation of the powers of another branch of government.
- Behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office.
- Employing the power of the office for an improper purpose or financial gain (Ding! Ding! Ding!).
Andrew Johnson (1868)
Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Prior to his untimely death, Lincoln was faced with how to properly oversee Reconstruction in the post-war South.
Lincoln favored a program that was lenient on Confederate officials, which angered Radical Republicans of the time. Ultimately, Johnson inherited and championed Lincoln’s policy, which the Radical Republicans countered with the Tenure of Office Act (1867).
Viewing this as highly unconstitutional, Johnson tested his bounds by firing his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
In response, his political enemies responded with 11 articles of impeachment in the House. They voted in favor of impeachment, 126 to 47 (with 17 members not voting).
A trial was then held before the Senate but fell short of the majority vote. Johnson rode out the rest of his term and was somehow elected to the US Senate (the only president to ever do so).
He died within months of taking office.
Richard Nixon (1974): ‘It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up’
Despite the damning evidence presented in the Watergate Scandal, Richard Nixon was never impeached — he resigned before the House brought forth articles against him.
On July 27, 1974, the House approved five articles of impeachment related to the president’s obstruction of justice abuses. A few months later, on Aug. 5, 1974, the Supreme Court ordered that the Nixon Administration release unedited tapes from the Oval Office discussing the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
The Court further found that Nixon had utilized the CIA to obstruct the FBI investigation into his dealings, as well as agreed to pay hush money to the burglars who orchestrated the break-in.
Nixon saw the proverbial writing on the wall and officially resigned on Aug. 8, 1974. He was granted a “full and unconditional pardon” by acting-President Gerald Ford on Sept. 8, 1974.
Bill Clinton (1998): ‘It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.’
The Clinton Administration faced legal woes from early on in his presidency. From the Whitewater Investigation (1993) to Paula Jones’ sexual assault suit (1994) — one could say that they had their hands full.
Prosecuting attorney Kenneth Starr was having a difficult time finding an impeachable offense in both investigations. Until a 21-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky admitted to having a relationship with President Clinton in a recording with former Pentagon employee Linda Tripp (who also accused the president of sexual harassment).
Both Clinton and Lewinsky had previously denied the relationship under oath.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton began on Oct. 8, 1998, with two articles of impeachment: Lying under oath and obstruction of justice.
In January 1999, the trial went to the Senate. The Senate was unable to reach a majority vote and Clinton was subsequently acquitted on both counts. He served out his final term.
Donald Trump (2019): ‘I would like you to do us a favor though.’
What constitutes an impeachable offense ultimately boils down to “executive abuse of power.” Did the Executive Branch abuse their power in any way? If so, is it worthy of pursuing impeachment?
In the most recent case, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president on Sept. 24, 2019.The whistleblower complaint of the call, in which Trump tied foreign aid to the condition that Ukraine investigates Hunter Biden, the son of his political rival, Vice President Joe Biden, has been made omnipresent information.
By Constitutional definition, this is bribery, and it’s an egregious abuse of power.
As former Trump staffers and officials have been providing the House Judiciary Committee with testimony behind closed doors (following protocol set out by John Boehner and other GOP members in 2015), Pelosi posed this question on Twitter: “It’s been more than a month and Republicans in Washington still won’t answer the simple question: is it appropriate for a president to pressure a foreign country to undermine our elections?”
The question was meant to be redundant.