Posted by: David Offutt | January 20, 2020

Our Third Presidential Impeachment

The 45th President of the United States became the third president in our history to be impeached, joining Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. (Photo: Getty Images)


Right now we are “between a rock and a hard place”, and the outlook for our constitutional system is bleak at best. Once the whistleblower’s complaint became public and once the partial content of that complaint became known, the House of Representatives had two unwinnable choices: (1) Ignore the egregious act, concede that the President of the United States is above the law and that our constitutional system of checks and balances is toothless; or (2) do its duty under the Constitution: investigate and, if justified, impeach the president for his abuses of power and his obstruction of Congress by defying subpoenas for witnesses and documents.

If the Democratic House chose option 1 and did nothing, the Constitution was trashed. If it chose option 2 – which it did – then the trial would go to the Republican Senate which plans to choose option 1 and accept the concept that “the king is above the law.” The Constitution is still trashed, and future presidents will be free from the constraints of possible impeachment or from honoring the separation of powers. The oath to protect and defend the Constitution for both the executive and legislative branches becomes a meaningless joke.

President Andrew Johnson: A lifelong Democrat who ran as Lincoln’s vice president in 1864 on their National Union ticket, he was at odds with the Republican Congress on the policies of Reconstruction. (Photo: A detail from Washington Cooper’s portrait of Johnson (after 1866) in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, by David Offutt)

The two other presidential impeachments were also constitutional crises but in a totally different way. Both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached for political/personal reasons and not for constitutional violations: neither of them was a threat to the Constitution. The impeachment clause was misused to attempt to effectively create a parliamentary system. A “Guilty” verdict in either trial would set the precedent by which a president could be removed essentially by a vote of “no confidence.” Ironically, to impeach them required their Republican opponents to resort to entrapping them into committing some kind of offense, which is definitely not true of the current impeachment.

As for Johnson, the radical Republicans had a two-thirds majority in the Senate, so it was conceivable that they could get away with it. Johnson was preparing to fire his secretary of state, Edwin Stanton, so the Republican Congress passed a bill over his veto that stated that if Congress approved someone’s appointment, then Congress also had to approve his removal. Johnson knew that the law was unconstitutional – as it was later declared – and fired Stanton anyway. He was impeached, but one radical Republican – for personal reasons – voted to acquit and thereby coincidentally preserved the Constitution.

President Bill Clinton: Like Warren Harding, FDR, and JFK, he cheated on his wife while serving as president. Unlike #45, he was never vocally misogynistic and no one would ever have known about it had he not been pursued by a relentless independent counsel who was desperate to find a reason to impeach him. He was acquitted by a 50-50 vote. (Photo: from the National Presidential Wax Museum in Keystone, SD, by David Offutt)

Clinton infuriated the Republicans by trying to do something about climate change and health care as soon as he took office, so they devoted six years to try to find some way to impeach the usurper from Arkansas, whom, like Johnson, they never considered worthy of being president. In doing so, they hoped to make a mockery of the impeachment process, which they are doing again. Today’s Articles of Impeachment were delivered to Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who proudly refers to himself as “The Grim Reaper”: he’s where Democratic initiatives, bills, and appointments go to die, usually without a vote. The congressional Trumpistas are continuing the Republican mission to make future presidents of their party immune to the impeachment process.

Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also expected Kenneth Starr to conspicuously abuse the Office of Independent Counsel enough so that the statute creating that office would not be renewed – it wasn’t. Unable to find anything resembling an impeachable offense, the frustrated Starr had to resort to using Bill’s secret cheating on Hillary to get him to lie under oath so as to be able to bring charges against him. Maybe, had Bill bragged about his sexual exploits as our incumbent president has done, it would have been acceptable.

It was so absurd that Gingrich was asked why his party was even doing this. “Because we can,” he said. It was ultimately done for the fun of embarrassing Clinton, listing as many salacious sexual details as possible. The immediate political objective, though, was to remove Clinton from being an asset to Vice President Al Gore in the upcoming 2000 presidential election – it worked.

Acquittal saved the Constitution twice, but this time it will require a “Guilty” verdict. That is, of course, if the extensive, damning evidence that has already been presented – and has been added to during the month since the indictment – cannot be refuted by the witnesses and documents that the president has thus far barred from testifying or being delivered. One can only presume why he does not want this evidence submitted under oath or put in the record.

Kenneth Starr: Appointed recently to defend #45 in the Senate, he would have given his soul had Clinton done just about anything that 45 has done since entering office in 2017, from violating the emoluments clause and the firing of FBI director Comey to the extortion of President Zelensky for political gain – oh, the irony. (Photo: Getty Images)

There has been a suggestion that there are currently at least 20 Republicans who would be willing to vote “Guilty” based only on the House investigations’ overwhelming evidence if it were a secret vote, but it’s going to be a voice vote. It’s hard to believe that to be true: any Republican who would choose loyalty to the Constitution over loyalty to the president and their party has probably already retired or left the party. It would be shocking for even a handful of Republicans (such as Mitt Romney or Susan Collins) were to summon the courage to vote against their Tweeter-in-chief – let alone the necessary 20 of the needed 67 of 100: they’re all scared to death of him – and of his base. (Five Republicans broke ranks with the party to vote “Not Guilty” at the Clinton trial, including Ms. Collins, but don’t expect her to break with it again.)

Former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers said upon his retirement that if the Republican Party ever got a two-thirds majority in Congress, we could kiss the Constitution goodbye. It may not have occurred to him that they could also cripple that venerable old document just as well by preventing a two-thirds vote. And that’s exactly what they plan to do. As I’ve written before, they will continue to cover for their liar-in-chief as long as he supports tax cuts for the rich and appoints reactionary judges to the courts, and the last thing anyone wants is to raise his ire.

[A version of this essay was printed in the El Dorado News-Times on January 17, 2020.]

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