Impeaching the President: Profiles in Partisanship

Profiles in Courage (1956), written by Theodore Sorenson (with a little help from John F. Kennedy, who accepted a Pulitzer Prize for it) is a

volume of short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States Senators, written by then-Senator John F. Kennedy…. The book profiles senators who defied the opinions of their party and constituents to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because of their actions.

I haven’t read the book, but I have a vague memory of the TV series that was based on it. The episode that sticks in my mind is based on the chapter about Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, who (according to the Wikipedia article about the book) voted

for acquittal in the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial. As a result of Ross’s vote, along with those of six other Republicans, Democrat Johnson’s presidency was saved, and the stature of the office was preserved.

Whether keeping Johnson in office preserved the stature of the presidency is debatable, given his opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves.

Whatever the case, the impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson marked the first of four “serious” attempts to remove a president. Aside from the impeachments and trials of Johnson (1868) and Clinton (1998-99), there was the almost-certain impeachment of Richard Nixon (1974), which was mooted by his resignation, and the almost-certain impeachment of Donald Trump (2019), which will proceed to a Senate trial (2020). (The many “unserious” attempts to impeach presidents are recounted here and here.)

When the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, a Democrat, only two Republicans voted “no”, as did all of the Democrats who voted. The resulting eleven articles of impeachment against Johnson were similarly approved along party lines. The votes reflected the essential issue between Johnson and congressional Republicans, which was how to proceed with the “reconstruction” of the South. Johnson, a Tennessean, had remained loyal to the Union but favored “reconstruction” measures that weren’t as harsh as those adopted by the Radical (abolitionist) Republicans, who controlled Congress. But seven Republican senators were having none of it, and voted for acquittal on the eleventh article (which was the first voted on). Ross, one of the seven, cast the final and deciding vote. (There were 35 “guilty” votes against 19 “not guilty” votes, but the Constitution’s two-thirds rule for conviction and removal from office required at least 36 “guilty” votes.) That broke the back of effort to remove Johnson, and the rest is history: Johnson remained in office through the end of his term (another nine months) as a lame-duck president.

Skipping forward 106 years, we find the House Judiciary Committee approving three articles of impeachment against Nixon, a Republican, with all the Democrats on the committee voting to approve two of them. The third article was approved despite two defections on the Democrat side. Two other articles were rejected because nine Democrats defected, joining unanimous opposition from Republicans (the only two cases in which Republicans held together). Nixon resigned before the House voted on the articles because it was certain that the House would adopt them, and enough Republicans might defect in the Senate to procure a conviction. If there was anything like a bipartisan impeachment of a president, this was it. But it is likely that Nixon got a bum rap, and was forced from office because he had been lynched by the media, which had long since become an outlet for left-wing propaganda.

Only 24 years later we come to the impeachment and trial of Clinton, a Democrat. I believe that the motive for the impeachment, at the hands of a Republican-controlled House, was resentment that Clinton had been elected in 1992 only because of the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, who probably siphoned enough votes from George H.W. Bush to swing the election to Clinton. Be that as it may, some Democrats in the House joined the large Republican majority to approve impeachment proceedings, those being the days when there were still some old-line Southern (i.e., conservative) Democrats. Three articles of impeachment were approved by the House Judiciary Committee, two along party lines and the third with only one defection by a GOP member of the committee. The full House then approved the first two articles. The Senate voted to acquit Clinton on both charges because Democrats were united in their opposition to the effort to remove Clinton (evidence of guilt notwithstanding), and they held 45 seats (far more than the one-third-plus-one required to block conviction). Not a few RINOs joined the Senate’s 45 Democrats in voting for acquittal, so that Clinton was found not guilty by votes of 55-45 and 50-50, far from the 67 votes required to remove him from office.

Here we are, 20 years after Clinton’s acquittal, facing another impeachment trial, that of Trump. The House voted to initiate proceedings (even though they had already been initiated) with only a few Democrats and Republicans switching sides. The House Judiciary Committee voted strictly along party lines to approve two articles of impeachment against Trump. The House will vote the same way, and the Senate trial will end in acquittal because, paradoxically, in these polarized times the GOP is far more united around Trump (the neo-Republican) than it was around Nixon (the life-long Republican).