The Nation and the World

Impeachments throughout history

On December 18, 2019, President Donald Trump was impeached, marking a historical moment as he is one of three presidents to ever undergo this process. Ultimately, the President was acquitted, but the mere passing of the Articles of Impeachment ensures the moment’s place in history books for Dana students to learn about for years to come. To better understand the process as well as the impact Trump’s impeachment will have on future proceedings, many have looked to the past. Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were also both formally impeached and then acquitted. These trials set a precedent and provide a lens with which to view the recent impeachment. 

On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives charged Johnson, a Democrat, with eleven articles of impeachment and passed these articles with a two-thirds supermajority. The impeachment was based on the claim that President Johnson had broken the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the President from firing people who disagreed with him. (This act was eventually ruled unconstitutional.) Johnson narrowly avoided removal from office by just one vote that many believe was bribed. Johnson’s impeachment was less partisan than Trump’s, with numerous members of the opposing Republican party foregoing party alliances to keep him in office. At the time, many viewed the impeachment as an attempt from Johnson’s opposition to remove him from office for disagreeing with their plan for Reconstruction.

Johnson’s acquittal set the precedent for not removing a President from office if the impeachment is viewed as a partisan process. In the Trump impeachment, the Republicans used this precedent in their defense of the President. They argued that the Democrats were only impeaching the President because they did not agree with him or the policies he was enacting. The Democrats asserted that the President’s actions constituted high crimes and misdemeanors and that the push for impeachment was not fueled by partisan interests. 

In 1998, the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment charging Democrat Bill Clinton with perjury and abuse of power. The prosecutors asserted that Clinton lied under oath to a federal grand jury about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He was also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly telling the White House staff to deny the affair.

Clinton’s acquittal set the precedent for the type of malfeasance that would justify impeachment. Clinton’s crimes involved personal conduct unrelated to his office. The vote boiled down to whether President Clinton’s personal wrongdoing constituted “high crimes and misdemeanors” as set forth in the United States Constitution. Many of Trump’s supporters justified their vote by asserting that Trump’s alleged actions, even if true, did not constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that the trial followed the precedent set by the Clinton impeachment.

However, the Trump trial deviated in many places from Clinton’s trial. One difference is that, in the most recent trial, documents discovered in the House inquiry were not submitted as evidence in the Senate trial.  In Clinton’s case, the impeachment trial was based on a report by independent counsel Ken Starr following an extensive investigation. This report went through the House, which voted to pass the Articles of Impeachment, and then moved to the Senate, which brought in new witnesses as well as witnesses cited in the Starr report. In President Trump’s trial, the House of Representatives passed the Articles of Impeachment with the expectation that more evidence would be introduced and evaluated by the voting senators during the trial in the Senate, as in Clinton’s trial. This did not happen. The Republicans voted against witnesses testifying and new evidence in the Senate trial. These deviations create a new precedent for impeachment in the future. 

Just as the past impeachments shaped the structure and proceedings of the trial, President Trump’s trial will alter the future of the impeachment process in the U.S. These are moments of clarity where the nation understands and reflects on history as it is being made.

Sources: The New York Times; Politico; Time.

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