Impeachment, Then and Now
By Alex Reinsch-Goldstein
Impeachment is a word which has always hung heavy over American politics. Ever since our founding fathers provided for it as a means to remove a president from office for illegal or immoral activities, it has been the end-all-and-be-all check on the increasingly vast power of the presidency. It is the one mechanism of justice that the presidency is not immune to.
Article II, Section IV of the Constitution specifies that the President may be removed from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” An earlier proposal to allow impeachment for “maladminstration”--in simpler words, doing what Congress felt was a poor job--was rejected on the grounds that it would, in effect, allow the President to serve only as long as the Congress would let him. The high burden of proof we know today is intended to make sure that impeachment cannot be a partisan process carried out against a President by a hostile Congress. In this sense, the founders were successful--perhaps too successful. In our intensely partisan atmosphere, it seems that impeachment is indeed a partisan process, but in the negative--instead of a partisan attempt to impeach a President, there will be a partisan refusal to impeach him no matter how strong the evidence is.
The process defined in the Constitution places the burden on both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives must first conduct an inquiry, and then introduce articles of impeachment, detailing the wrongdoing of the President. These are voted on by the Judiciary Committee and then by the full House if they’re successful. The case then moves to the Senate for trial, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. A guilty vote by ⅔ of the Senate--67 senators--is required to convict a President. If he is found guilty, he is removed from office.
No president has ever been subjected to the complete process up to conviction. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1867, over his illegal firings of cabinet officials, and avoided conviction in the Senate by one vote. At the height of the Watergate Scandal, Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon were drawn up in the House, but Nixon resigned when it appeared that a House vote for impeachment and conviction in the Senate were inevitable. Bill Clinton was impeached by a Republican-controlled House in 1998 for his lying during the investigation into the Lewinsky affair, but was acquitted by the Senate in a trial whose outcome was never seriously in doubt.
Donald Trump’s presidency is perhaps unique in the volume of calls for impeachment directed against it. Congressmen Al Green and Brad Sherman introduced articles of impeachment against Trump in the wake of the firing of FBI director James Comey, five months into Trump’s presidency. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer has been campaigning since 2017 for impeachment on the grounds that Trump is unstable and poses a grave threat to national security. Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee introduced articles accusing the president of obstructing justice that same year. All of these attempts ultimately went nowhere. In the aftermath of the release of the Mueller Report and the testimony of Robert Mueller before Congress, the calls for impeachment renewed and began to gather strength--over a hundred Democrats supported it.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was the conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky. In this phone conversation, dating from last July, Trump asked Zelensky to open an investigation into the Ukrainian business dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter--an action which would have the effect of bringing in a foreign nation to dispense dirt on the family of one of Trump’s political opponents. This revelation, first publicized by a now-infamous whistleblower report, has upended the political world in Washington and created a near-continuous frenzy of more revelations and political maneuvering. The number of Democrats backing impeachment mounted. This week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally opened an impeachment inquiry--beginning the rare, grave process of impeachment in earnest.
The founders intended impeachment to be a means of last resort, to bring a malfeasant president to heel. It has been applied only sparingly in the 230-year history of the American presidency, not even within our lifetimes for many of us. Impeachment has been something which exists only in the abstract--in conjecture and in history books. However, there is a good chance we will get a look at the real, living thing soon enough. Whatever the coming months may bring, it is unlikely to be uneventful.