There have been a few presidential impeachments. They all failed and backfired.
Andrew Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in 1864, Lincoln’s second term, succeeding Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Lincoln and his new Republican Party were associated with advocating an end to slavery. Lincoln hoped, as he sought reelection for a second term amid the Civil War, that he could attract support from “Southern Unionists” like Texas’s former governor Sam Houston. So Lincoln “balanced” his ticket by selecting a running mate from eastern Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. A hundred years later, during less volatile times, a Northeasterner from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, John Kennedy, would balance his ticket with a Southerner from Dixie, Lyndon Johnson of Texas. That is often how it works — sometimes a ticket with polar opposites to draw many constituencies, sometimes two running mates in synch, like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, or George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Impeachment hardly is about justice; in presidential politics, it is about raw politics.
When Lincoln was murdered just after the Civil War, the northern Republicans found themselves faced with the unacceptable anomaly that, having just defeated the South, they now were faced with a Tennessean as president. They decided they had to get rid of him. Consequently, they fabricated an excuse to remove Andrew Johnson when he fired his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act that Congress had passed over Johnson’s veto. Although they drew up 11 articles of impeachment, that was the big one: Johnson was acting like a tyrant and abrogating democracy by removing a cabinet officer without Senate consent, in violation of an act of Congress. Twenty years later Congress repealed that unconstitutional act, and the U.S. Supreme Court likewise eventually held in 1926 on a similar matter that presidents may fire such executive branch personnel (Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 1926). Nowadays, of course, such a presidential action is perfectly fine. Even the Pelosi impeachment-crazy House never suggested impeaching President Trump for removing and replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and other executive branch personnel.
The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was mean-spirited and personal. He did no wrong, no high crime and misdemeanor. But impeachment hardly is about justice; in presidential politics, it is about raw politics. The Republicans had the power, the control. They had crushed the slave-owning Democrats who would give birth to the Ku Klux Klan. The Democrats were always the party of slavery, and even in our own lives they elevated a Ku Klux Klan leader, Robert Byrd, to lead them. Democrat Sen. Byrd never dressed in blackface to our knowledge because the white hood over his head would have covered and discolored it.
Although Andrew Johnson survived conviction by only one vote, that of the courageous Edmund Ross of Kansas, history today looks down on that entire impeachment travesty and trial as a time of national shame. The shame is on the Congress, who perpetrated that cynical act. Visit President Johnson’s home, as I have done in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he rose from being an illiterate tailor to a city councilman, and you will see a magnificent statue of him. He is remembered as someone who helped preserve the Constitution in the face of a bullying Congress gone wild.
Many of us lived through the Clinton impeachment. That, too, was purely political. Yes, he had lied under oath — perjury — but if you recall Whatsername Blasey Ford testifying under oath against Brett Kavanaugh, you know that we rarely punish perjury, even when in full view, even when before Congress. Rather, perjury is a crime that is held in abeyance when prosecutors want to take someone down and have nothing else. The Republicans were determined to take down Bill Clinton. Partly because they hated his guts. Partly because they were nursing sore wounds over the Democrats’ character assassination of Judge Robert Bork a decade earlier in 1987. Partly because they had not gotten over the disgraceful way the media and the Democrats had taken down Richard Nixon a decade before that in 1974. So now the Republicans controlled the House, and they felt it was payback time. The impeachment began in October 1998, and Clinton was impeached in December. The trial began January 1999 with voting on conviction in February.
Big mistake. The 1998 national elections, conducted amid the height of the impeachment process, saw the Democrats gain five House seats. The Republican House majority dropped from 227-206 down to 223-211. It was the first time since 1934 that the non-presidential party failed to gain Congressional seats in a mid-term election. It also was the first time since 1822 that the non-presidential party had failed to gain seats in the mid-term election of a president’s second term. In Senate races, Chuck Schumer defeated New York’s Al D’Amato. Clinton’s congressional prosecutors were crushed politically, as House Republicans ousted Newt Gingrich after their mid-term losses and replaced him with Dennis Hastert. Yes, Clinton had lied under oath during a deposition in a lawsuit brought against him by Paula Jones. The Clinton impeachment thus was based technically on a true crime, that of perjury, for which he was disbarred in Arkansas and barred from practicing before the U.S. Supreme Court, but most Americans intuitively felt there is a difference between lying under oath about something like treason versus lying about illicit sexual affairs. Clinton was acquitted at trial by votes of 55-45 and 50-50 — both well short of two-thirds and both remembered now purely as acquittals. His popularity rose to 73 percent upon his impeachment, while Republicans lost 10 percent in their favorability ratings. He maintained overall high popularity ratings in several categories of leadership through his presidency, and he continued to stand prominently as the Democrat party’s most popular figure through the George W. Bush years and through the two national conventions that nominated Obama. In 2012 his popularity had risen to 66 percent. In time, Democrats would nominate Clinton’s wife as a presidential candidate. Yes, the impeachment stained Clinton’s name but completely backfired politically.
One year ago, as the Wuhan coronavirus was starting to spread worldwide and threatening our shores, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and Jerrold Nadler were focused instead on impeaching Donald Trump. The fix was in because they had the votes. Schiff held secret star-chamber proceedings. Actual public testimony that acquitted Trump was ignored, and the House voted to impeach Trump anyway. He was acquitted easily in the Senate. More than that, Trump’s popularity grew during the impeachment.
He was made a martyr. Yes, die-hard anti-Trump Democrats always would hate him, and die-hard pro-Trump Republicans would love him no matter what. But the great American center, comprised of reasonable Democrats and Independents, flocked towards Trump during and after the prior impeachment. They saw he was being railroaded.
He now is being railroaded again. We still all are trees inside the forest, lacking the broader perspective that time will afford. Right now tensions are too high for people to step back a moment and to gauge objectively. But that is only today. The Democrats irresponsibly have just done something that perhaps is all but unprecedented in American history: they charged, tried, and convicted a person — the impeachment phase of the political drama — in less than a day. If impeachments are meant to be fit in during a coffee break, why did the last one drag on so long? Why did Clinton’s and Johnson’s? Last year’s annual Trump impeachment took weeks of testimony from witnesses all over the place. Remember their names — all your favorites — from last time? Kurt Volker. Marie Yovanovitch. Fiona Hill. George Kent. Gordon Sondland. Bill Taylor. Laura Cooper. Alex Vindman. His medals. Catherine Croft. It went on and on and on. If they had not shut it down for Christmas, Kato Kaelin would have been next.
But this time it was Darkness at Noon: instead of pretending honesty, Pelosi and her Democrats did the impeachment as Josef Stalin conducted his show trials in the Soviet Union: first declare the guilt, then type up some charges, and then vote to convict without so much as a meaningful hearing. She did not even bother with the souvenir pens — presumably just ink-refill cartridges this time.
If the Pelosi argument was that there is no time now for justice — just pass the impeachment, and then we can see later what’s in it (sound familiar, Obamacare fans?) — the lie is manifest because the trial will not start for at least more than a week, if ever. There was time. Moreover, as a matter of law, the impeachment becomes mooted on January 20 when the president departs the White House, and a trial should not even convene under the law of the land. The Constitution offers impeachment as a vehicle to remove someone from office. See U.S. Const. Art. 1 § 3 and Art. 2 § 4. If we could convict ex-presidents who have left office, then we now likewise would be impeaching and convicting the racist Woodrow Wilson just as Princeton University now has removed that Democrat bigot from its school of public policy.
If Congress proceeds anyway, and if the Supreme Court does not quash the nonsense, the process still will go nowhere. There will not be 67 votes in the Senate to convict. History then will have no choice but to call it an “acquittal.” As a result, while Trump haters relish that Trump will have been the only president to have been impeached twice, Trump supporters will exult in his being the only president to be acquitted twice. There is no shame in being acquitted. Rather, history will ask instead about the crazy hate-filled Congress that kept impeaching a guy who kept getting acquitted.
With the passage of time, even Jimmy Carter now can show his face in public. By 2024, if Trump plays his cards right, history will view him favorably. He will have to play his cards right, though. He will have to show a newfound capacity to learn from his mistakes. He will have to stop using foul words and will have to lower the level of personal insults. He will have to learn how to insert a touch of humility into his braggadocio. I do not know whether he has the capacity to change that dramatically in his 70s — but if he does, he may prove unbeatable. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially when the placebo is Pelosi, Biden, and Harris.
We also now know why, though it made for a fun chant at rallies, “Lock Her Up” never was going to happen. In four White House years, the Trump administration never prosecuted Hillary Clinton even though she perpetrated clear felonies that result for commoners in prison incarceration. Virtually everyone else who perpetrates such crimes as spoliating evidence — 33,000 emails, hammering a hard drive into bits — while under federal criminal investigation goes to prison for a long stretch. Even Martha Stewart got locked up for that — and undoubtedly brightened the décor there while assuring that prisoners’ stripes were ironed smartly. But Hillary never got prosecuted because we Americans do not hound and persecute losers in political races. By contrast, if Pelosi and her stooges pursue President Trump after he departs the Swamp for Mar-a-Lago, they not only will make a martyr of him, but many among us 74 million-plus who voted for him will rev up our engines for 2024. Biden’s initial “honeymoon period” will be wasted on acrimony that dooms any hope he may have harbored to heal a divided nation. If that is how he wants it, he will find that the impeachment will have backfired worse than he ever could have imagined while hunkered in his basement.