Impeachment has served not just as a means for removing a corrupt president from office, as outlined in the Constitution; in fact, it has never actually accomplished that purpose.
By Peter Baker
As President George Bush prepared to order US troops into war to eject Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, he feared it could end his presidency. “If it drags out,” he dictated to his diary Dec. 20, 1990, “not only will I take the blame, but I will probably have impeachment proceedings filed against me.”
Eleven days later, in a letter to his children, he quoted a Democratic senator telling him that “if it is drawn out,” he should “be prepared for some in Congress to file impeachment papers.” On the day the war began, a Democratic congressman did just that, introducing a resolution of impeachment accusing him of “conspiring to commit crimes against the peace.”
Fortunately for Bush, the war was relatively brief, and efforts to impeach him fizzled. But he was hardly the only president to worry. While President Donald Trump is just the fourth commander in chief in U.S. history to confront a serious threat of impeachment, the prospect hung over many of his predecessors, a nagging worry in the back of the mind for some, a constitutional sword of Damocles for others.
Impeachment has served not just as a means for removing a corrupt president from office, as outlined in the Constitution; in fact, it has never actually accomplished that purpose. Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both impeached by the House but acquitted after Senate trials, while President Richard Nixon resigned before the full House could vote. But impeachment has served as a deterrent, a consequence that presidents had to consider when making decisions that crossed into questionable territory.
Presidents have been accused of high crimes and misdemeanors for misconduct and for disputed policy choices. They have been targeted for impeachment for abusing their power, withholding information from Congress and providing poor moral leadership. They have been threatened with removal for violating court orders, statutory law, the Constitution and even the United Nations Charter.
Beyond Johnson, Nixon, Clinton and now Trump, lawmakers have filed formal impeachment resolutions against at least seven other presidents, meaning that 1 out of every 4 occupants of the White House has faced accusations of high crimes and misdemeanors, while others were threatened. Most of the time, the effort posed no serious jeopardy. But as with Bush, it could weigh on them nonetheless.
“Every president’s concerned about his legacy, and that leads them to be concerned about whether impeachment is a possibility,” said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina. “Oftentimes, that leads them to be very vigilant to monitor misconduct — and sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not.”
As conceived by the framers of the Constitution, impeachment was never meant to remedy incompetence or policy differences, akin to a vote of no confidence in a parliamentary system, but it was reserved for larger offenses against the republic. But the framers never explained precisely what they meant, and so each generation has, in effect, redefined it.
The first formal impeachment effort against a president came in 1843 when a House member introduced a resolution calling for an inquiry against President John Tyler for “arbitrary, despotic and corrupt abuse of the veto power” after he rejected two tariff bills favored by his own Whig Party.
The clash was a test of Tyler’s legitimacy. He was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency after President William Henry Harrison died a month into his term, and Tyler had no strong support in either political party. The matter came to a vote by the full House, which rejected the resolution 127-83.
In the years that followed, other presidents were threatened with impeachment. After President James Polk took the country to war with Mexico on misleading terms, opponents raised the prospect of impeachment. “In my judgment, it is an impeachable offense,” Daniel Webster declared at a rally in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
A committee held hearings on impeaching President James Buchanan, widely considered the worst U.S. commander in chief. Opponents talked about impeaching President Ulysses Grant amid corruption allegations against his administration. Even the sainted President Abraham Lincoln was warned by an adviser weeks into his administration that he might be impeached if he abandoned Fort Sumter.
Johnson’s impeachment by the House in 1868 followed previous attempts to impeach him on other charges. The House voted the year before to authorize an investigation of his conduct, and the House Judiciary Committee reported an impeachment resolution, but the full House defeated it 108-57. Only after he fired Edwin Stanton, the war secretary allied with the Radical Republicans in Congress, did the House vote to impeach Johnson.
His acquittal by a single vote in his Senate trial did not discourage future lawmakers from turning to impeachment. In 1896, a congressman introduced a resolution to impeach President Grover Cleveland in a dispute over the sale of bonds. During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover faced an impeachment resolution for increasing unemployment and taxes — a tad belated, since it was submitted in December 1932, a month after he lost reelection.
In April 1952, the House debated impeaching President Harry Truman three days in a row after he seized the nation’s steel mills to thwart a worker strike during the Korean War. The resolution also charged him for sending troops to Korea under UN command without congressional approval and firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In the end, it never came to a vote, but the Supreme Court invalidated the steel plant seizure.
Like Johnson, Nixon faced down impeachment before Watergate. Three resolutions were introduced against him in 1972 charging him, among other things, with breaking off peace talks to end the Vietnam War and escalating the air war. None were acted on and Nixon was reelected.
But 17 more resolutions were introduced over the next year focused on his secret war in Cambodia, the firing of the Watergate prosecutor and illegal wiretapping of journalists and critics. Twenty more resolutions were later introduced. Yet when the House Judiciary Committee ultimately approved three articles against him, lawmakers kept them focused on Watergate.
President Ronald Reagan was threatened with impeachment twice. Eight House members introduced a resolution to impeach him in 1983 over his invasion of Grenada, which was referred to committee and never acted on. Four years later, Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, introduced six articles of impeachment stemming from the Iran-Contra scandal. The White House feared impeachment was a real danger, but Democratic congressional leaders decided not to proceed to avoid a divisive fight.
The same Gonzalez introduced the impeachment resolution against Bush Jan. 16, 1991, as the Persian Gulf War opened, then proposed a second one a month later. Neither was acted on.
Clinton, like Johnson and Nixon before him, was targeted for impeachment more than once. Eighteen House members offered a resolution calling for an inquiry in 1997, a year before independent counsel Ken Starr filed his report leading to Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice to cover up an affair with a former White House intern.
President George W. Bush faced impeachment efforts by backbench Democrats over the invasion of Iraq on what turned out to be false reports that Baghdad had unconventional weapons. By Bush’s last year in office, one Democratic opponent had collected so many complaints that he submitted 35 articles of impeachment, including for failing to adequately respond to Hurricane Katrina; they were sent to committee and not acted on.
Some conservative Republicans talked about impeaching President Barack Obama over everything from the Benghazi attack to the birther conspiracy theory without following through. But Obama took the possibility more seriously in 2013 when he considered a military strike against Syria to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on civilians, a factor that influenced his decision to abort the plan. A few months later the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in which Republicans discussed impeaching Obama, although it went nowhere.
Few if any elected presidents faced talk of impeachment as early as Trump. Days after his election in 2016, speculation began because of his many ethical issues. Trump now complains that Democrats have been out to get him from the start and are only using the Ukraine matter as an excuse; his opponents said that Trump has violated standards so many times that he brought this on himself.
Either way, this moment might resonate for many of his predecessors. “Anytime you have a president who pushes the boundaries — and Trump has been pushing them since day one — he’s going to push too far, and there’s going to be pushback,” Gerhardt said. “And impeachment is the core of any pushback.”
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