This is not a column about impeaching our current president. This is a column about the impeachment process and the history of the legal route our nation is obliged to follow to oust a federal official.
In the 231 years since the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Congress has seriously considered impeachment only a handful of times, just 19 to be exact. Most of the cases involved federal judges accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors” like being habitually drunk, showing blatant favoritism on the bench, using the office to enrich themselves, committing perjury or filing false expense accounts or tax returns.
Only three impeachment cases have involved a president. Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998) were officially impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted during the required trial in the Senate. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned ahead of his inevitable impeachment.
Note a gap of more than a hundred years between the Johnson and Nixon impeachment proceedings. Today, many Americans are old enough to be enduring the third painful presidential impeachment drama in their lifetime: Nixon, Clinton and now Trump.
The point of this little history lesson is that impeachment has been – and should be – used sparingly, to address the most flagrant and egregious cases. It should be employed for only serious crimes like treason, bribery and those aforementioned (and vaguely worded) high crimes and misdemeanors. The Founding Fathers did not intend for the process to be undertaken to settle political scores. And impeachment was never supposed to be used as a devise to undo a lawful presidential election.
It is clear that many citizens do not embrace the current occupant of the White House as “their president.” They recite a laundry list of complaints and insist that real election justice lies in the popular vote, but it does not. That is not the way our system was set up.
There were multiple reasons for establishing the Electoral College in 1787 but, simply put, it was so that states with the biggest populations – California and New York for example (which traditionally vote democratic) – could not dictate the winner for the entire country. One need only look at a modern day color-coded map of the United States to see that traditional republican red states dominate, yet blue democratic states, mostly on the eastern and western coastlines, have more population.
In a time when so many progressive thinkers shun everything “big”, like corporations, banks and pharmaceutical companies, it is a puzzlement why “big states” get a pass.
There have been efforts over the last decade to do away with the Electoral College. In fact, there are bills currently pending in the House and Senate, both introduced by democrats. Democrats are still stinging over Electoral College wins by republicans in 2000 (George W. Bush over Al Gore) and 2016 (Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton). That said, if the republican presidential candidates had twice lost in the Electoral College it is likely members of the GOP would be just as upset with the system.
But back to impeachment. For as much unhappiness as there has been over many of our current president’s words and actions, the latest being his telephone interaction with the president of Ukraine, Trump’s ultimate removal from office seems unlikely.
The democratically led House of Representatives will probably vote to impeach Trump, after expending much time, effort and many taxpayer dollars. But then the republican led Senate will conduct a trial to determine whether the president should be removed from office. At this point it seems unlikely that the Senate will do that. Unless some unforeseen explosive development in the Ukraine uproar arises this president will follow in Presidents Johnson and Clinton’s footsteps and simply go back to work, continuing his most unconventional ways.
History is a great guide if we only take time to study it. In 1868, President Johnson was accused of ignoring the will of Congress, and its Tenure of Office Act, by firing his Secretary of War. The House voted to impeach, the Senate did not agree to any of the 11 articles of impeachment. Johnson remained in office.
In 1998, President Clinton faced 11 impeachable offenses. The House approved two, lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Both counts had to do with Clinton’s sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. Again, the House voted to impeach but, interestingly, the republican led Senate didn’t muster the two-thirds votes needed to remove the democrat Clinton from office.
It will take time for our current political drama to play out and anything can happen. But, sadly, in the meantime our most urgent problems go unaddressed. I don’t know about you but I’d much rather the Congress use my taxpayer dollars on something definitive and positive like lowering prescription and health care prices; better services for abused children, the elderly and veterans; improved roads and bridges; more accessibility to college education and criminal justice and sentencing reforms.
I’m betting you would too.