Today Donald J. Trump became the third president in U.S. history to be impeached (No, Nixon was not impeached.) This is by all accounts a somber moment, except those of the salivating pundits on MSNBC fighting to mask their giddy smiles like a chocolate smeared child who just licked the mixing bowl clean. We are living in history, albeit a part of history that is becoming troublingly frequent.
For 223 years, the American congress only saw fit to impeach one president, Andrew Johnson from Greeneville, TN. Johnson, the Southern leader of a newly restored Union, was impeached for over-extending his executive powers in the eyes of an antagonistic congress. In layman’s terms, they impeached him because they were tired of his constitutionally questionable antics.
On December 18, 1998, twenty-one years ago today, the republican controlled House of Representatives introduced articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about a sexual relationship with a former White House intern. Republicans and special counsel Ken Starr had a big swing and a miss earlier in the year, as the Starr Report failed to find conclusive evidence implicating Clinton in any of the myriad scandals he was alleged to have been involved in. Republicans found a different way. After failing to definitively prove he was involved with Whitewater, Travelgate, or Filegate, they caught him lying under oath about dipping his pen in the company ink.
The Trump impeachment has commonalities with both of these. Democrats have been incensed by Trump from day one, much like the union loyalists were with southern sympathizer Johnson. Like Clinton, from virtually day one Trump has been the subject of investigations, probes and lawsuits pertaining to a vast array of alleged scandals. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not a media darling and has had to battle intense media scrutiny as well as a host of pesky bureaucrats and Washington insiders.
The constitution calls for impeachment in cases of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This is one of the most vague parts of our constitution. Presidents are not tried by the courts or convicted by juries. They are impeached by the House and tried in front of a jury constituted of all one-hundred senators. No president has ever been convicted by the Senate. So, what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors? Why do we have impeachment?
The only person who would almost certainly have been convicted and removed from office was President Richard Nixon. He resigned before that could happen. His sins were so severe they melted the partisan ice in Washington, his scandal so repugnant even his own party turned on him. This is not the case with Trump, nor was it with Clinton, or to a lesser extent Johnson.
Presidents Clinton and Trump have something in common, besides impeachment and their one time mutual support for a southern border wall. They came to Washington as outsiders, and had a modicum of success achieving their policy goals. One was a slick, smooth talking lawyer from Arkansas who back slapped and baby kissed his way into America’s heart. The other, a brash New York tycoon who charged the breach with hellfire and brimstone. Either way, they were both outsiders who galled their political foes at every turn. The elusive Clinton slipped punches and scandals with a wink and a sly grin, while the brash Trump charged into his accusers like Smokin’ Joe Frazier, giving as many licks as he took.
Clinton wasn’t impeached for lying about a blue dress and an intern. He was impeached because republicans hated him. Trump was not impeached for some mysterious phone call to Ukraine. He was impeached because democrats hate him. Impeachment is the figurative ejector seat in our democracy. It was designed as a measure of last resort to protect the nation from its president. Does anyone really believe this phone call passes muster? We have now chosen to employ impeachment twice in twenty-one years, after using it only once before in the history of our nation. We have impeached two out of the last four presidents. Let that sink in. This is a dismal reflection on the state of our politics.
Abraham Lincoln, the empathetic warrior whose fortitude and compassion held this nation together in its darkest hour, famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. We cannot give in to our primal impulses to reach for rocks instead of rhetoric, and wholly dismiss those we disagree with as criminals and traitors. Impeachment has become yet another political tool in the partisan toolbox. If we continue down our path of extremism, this once great republic will join the likes of Greece and Rome as another failed experiment on the ash heap of history.