Impeachment: Why Trump should be afraid
Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.
When voters gave the Democrats the House last year, Nancy Pelosi became perhaps the only Speaker of the House to have a plausible impeachment of the president looming over her on Day One. She worked hard to avoid it for months. As recently as this weekend, she was still dodging the central question of her speakership while nevertheless insisting, “Our founders could never suspect that a president would be so abusive of the Constitution of the United States.”
Trump’s attempt to pressure the Ukrainian president into damaging a potential Democratic challenger appears to have been the final straw, and it isn’t hard to see why. Trump apparently made his call the day after Robert Mueller testified about Russian interference in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, and Trump’s successful obstruction of his investigation. It’s the equivalent of narrowly getting away with a string of bank robberies, rushing off to rob another bank, then doing donuts in the courthouse parking lot.
Pelosi’s arguments against impeachment were never about Trump’s innocence or fitness for office. He has been eligible for impeachment since the minute he took office, thanks to the brazen crimes of his campaign. His potential rap sheet—from obstruction of justice, to gross negligence, to human-rights abuses, to encouraging white-supremacist terror against his own people—has only gotten worse.
Instead, she insisted that impeachment in the House would be a waste of time because the bar for removal—two-thirds of the Senate—may be unattainably high. That argument is still considered the wise-guy conventional wisdom, backed up by the least impressive of our pundits. As Pelosi left the podium at the Capitol this afternoon, a reporter shouted after her: “What will it accomplish if the Senate doesn’t convict?”
It will accomplish impeachment. To understand its value, even in the absence of conviction, it’s worth taking a quick tour through the short, frequently misremembered history of American presidential impeachments, as this latest chapter gets underway:
John Tyler (1843)
Contrary to popular belief, Andrew Johnson (see below) was not the first president to face impeachment proceedings. That honor goes to Tyler, an accidental president who, like Trump, relatively few people ever wanted in office in the first place.
He was elected as the running-mate of William Henry Harrison, becoming the first veep to inherit the presidency when the popular war hero immediately died. Tyler was at odds with his own party, the Whigs, in part because he was an enslaver at a time when many of them were becoming abolitionists. Soon he started vetoing their bills in a way that much of Congress, including president-turned-congressman John Quincy Adams, thought defied the spirit of the constitution.
Result: The brief impeachment proceedings cemented Tyler’s unpopularity, helping convince him to drop out of the 1844 presidential race and ending his U.S. political career. Tyler died in 1862, a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.
James Buchanan (1860)
The last in a series of incompetent, racist presidents who preceded the Civil War, Buchanan is best known as the one-term wonder who stood around doing nothing while the Deep South seceded. He spent his last year under an impeachment cloud, as a committee led by the abolitionist Rep. John Covode of the new Republican Party spent months digging up evidence of his administration’s corruption.
Buchanan spent more effort fighting the committee than he did the secessionists. In one exasperated protest he called its witnesses “a band of interested parasites and informers, ever ready, for their own advantage, to swear … to pretended private conversations … incapable, from their nature, of being disproved.” (If you hear the faint fore-echoes of “witch hunt” and “fake news” in there, you aren’t alone. When U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta ruled that Congress had the authority to investigate Trump this past May, he opened his opinion by quoting Buchanan’s letter.)
Result: The committee didn’t find enough to impeach “Old Buck.” But its highly publicized findings, including Buchanan’s attempts to bribe members of Congress into approving a fraudulent pro-slavery constitution for the new state of Kansas, triggered public outrage—including this awesome proto-Gawker shitpost from the New York Times.
Buchanan’s political career ended in disgrace, giving way to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It took a quarter of a century for another Democratic candidate to win the White House.
Andrew Johnson (1868)
Three years after Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, Johnson became the first of two presidents to actually get impeached by the House. It was—as impeachment always is—a political fight.
Most of the articles concerned Johnson’s firing of his—and Lincoln’s—secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, in violation of a law Congress passed specifically to prevent just that. But what it was really about was Johnson, a former Democrat from Tennessee, conciliating the defeated enslavers by reestablishing white supremacy: undercutting black voting rights, land reform, and promoting anti-black terror in the South. (Stanton was overseeing the military occupation of the former Confederacy, whose tasks included protecting the newly freed black people from white mobs.)
As the historian Annette Gordon-Reed has written, “Johnson’s real crime in the eyes of opponents was that he had used the power of the presidency to prevent Congress from giving aid to the four million African-Americans freed after the Civil War.”
You might think the country had grown tired of spectacles by 1868. But Johnson’s impeachment trial in the Senate riveted the nation. Johnson had known the Republican Congress was trying to impeach him for his white-supremacist actions when he fired Stanton, and he had known that, in doing so, he was breaking the law. Millions wanted to see if he would have to pay a price.
Result: The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of conviction, but not by enough: the 35–19 vote was one short of the required two-thirds majority.
Johnson’s supporters rallied in the streets. But, as Yoni Appelbaum noted in a piece on Johnson’s impeachment, “the euphoria proved short-lived.” The Republicans refused to nominate Johnson again, and the Democrats did too. Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency back for the Republicans, injecting new life into the Reconstruction effort.
“If the goal of impeachment was to frustrate Johnson’s efforts to make America a white man’s country again, it was an unqualified success,” Applebaum wrote. “Impeachment drew the United States closer to living up to its ideals, if only fleetingly, by rallying the public against Johnson’s assault on the Constitution.”
Richard Nixon (1974)
If you remember Richard Nixon fondly, congratulations: You’re part of an exclusive club. Before Donald Trump, Nixon was the gold standard for disgraced presidents. His signature crime remains so iconic that every major presidential scandal since has gotten a “-gate” appended to it. Rubber Nixon masks with giant penile noses were still a best-selling Halloween costume nearly a decade after he died.
When I was a teenager, in the 1990s, if you asked most people, “Who was the only president to get impeached?” the answer you expected to get was “Nixon.” (I know this because I was the quiz-bowl dork who had fun telling people it was Andrew Johnson.) People remembered it that way because, as Michael Schudson wrote in Watergate in American Memory, he “more or less was.”
You might know all about Watergate, or you might not, but there’s too much to summarize here. I’ll suffice with a few fun facts:
The first impeachment resolutions were introduced against Nixon before the break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate even happened. One of them, introduced by Rep. John Conyers in 1972, focused mainly on Nixon’s furtherance of the Vietnam War.
Thanks in part to his campaign committee’s dirty tricks, including the espionage at the DNC, Nixon won an astounding 520-17 victory in the Electoral College, netting 61% of the popular vote.
In January 1973, just before the Senate voted to create a select committee to investigate Watergate, Nixon hit an all-time high Gallup poll rating of 67%. SIXTY-SEVEN PERCENT. Chris Cillizza would have married him.
And yet, by the time the hearings were over, with evidence of Nixon’s spectacular corruption and criminality revealed to the nation, even his Republican allies had turned against him. A quarter of Americans still stood by the president, but it wasn’t enough.
Result: Nixon resigned, requiring a pardon to keep him out of prison. Many of his senior aides weren’t so lucky. The Democrats crushed the Republicans in that fall’s midterm elections. Jimmy Carter beat Nixon’s pardon-granting successor, Gerald Ford, in 1976. The Republicans were forced to rebuild their party from the bottom up. They spent the next 45 years obsessed with finding a Watergate to slap the Democrats with.
Bill Clinton (1998)
Watergate all but destroyed the Republican Party for the rest of the 1970s, but by 1980, the GOP was back. Leaning harder into the combination of race-baiting and anti-labor conservatism that Nixon rode to victory, Ronald Reagan became president. He left office with enough of his reputation intact to get bridges and stuff named for him, thanks in part to the fact that the Democrats never managed to impeach him for Iran-Contra.
But in 1992, a flashy, philandering Democrat from Arkansas beat Reagan’s former vice president, and all hell broke loose. The GOP spent the next six years trying to find a way to do to Bill Clinton, the first Democrat to win two full terms since Franklin Roosevelt, what the Democrats had done to Richard Nixon.
Ultimately, Independent Counsel Ken Starr nailed Clinton with a scathing report proving he had lied under oath about a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, starting when she was 22 years old.
Despite losing seats in the 1998 midterm elections—widely interpreted as a referrendum on their plans—Republicans went ahead and impeached Clinton during the lame duck (after a brief delay to allow him to bomb Iraq). The president was sent to the Senate for trial on two articles of impeachment: lying to a grand jury (including witness tampering), and obstructing justice in the larger sexual harassment case that had led to the discovery of their affair.
Result: It wasn’t close: No Democrats voted against the president, and several Republicans defected, leaving the Senate seventeen votes short of the 67 needed for removal. Clinton left office with a 65% approval rating.
Yet, by dragging Clinton into a constitutional process of removal, they convinced even most of his supporters that Clinton had committed adultery in the Oval Office and lied about it. George W. Bush ran in 2000 pledging “to restore honor and dignity to the White House.” That was good enough to overcome questions about his competency, and put him close enough to snatch the election from Al Gore with help from the Supreme Court.
It didn’t matter that the Clinton impeachment was easily the dirtiest on the list. Several Republicans who led the effort had, and lied about, similar affairs. Rep. Henry Hyde, who served as chief prosecutor in the trial, had an affair with a beauty stylist, 12 years his junior, at roughly the same age Clinton was when he had his affair with Lewinsky. Ken Starr was later forced to resign as president of Baylor University for covering up sexual abuse. That misogyny may explain why Starr overlooked and essentially buried the most serious allegation against Clinton, the rape of Juanita Broddarick.
The GOP dominated government for the next decade and a half, with only two years in which they didn’t control at least one house of Congress. Even with the Iraq War, the violent, botched response to 9/11, and the Great Recession to its name, the GOP was able to make an even plausible bid for the presidency against Hillary Clinton in 2016, in large part, fairly or not, because the albatross of her husband’s affairs and aura of duplicity hung around her neck.
In short, Republicans had learned the key lesson of Watergate (and the failure to impeach in Iran-Contra): Impeachments damage, and sometimes end, presidencies—even ones that seem invincible. That’s why they’re so afraid now.
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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photos: Harpers’ Weekly Political Cartoon (Wikimedia Commons), Johnson Impeachment Ticket (LOC), George Brett in a Nixon mask, 1976 (@si_vault)