Three presidents and the price of impeachment

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Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Images: White House photos.
Work is just beginning for Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, but some politicians are already calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump.

   “President Trump has committed an act for which he should be charged by the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat, in a statement posted on his website. “The act is the obstruction of a lawful investigation of the president’s campaign ties to Russian influence in his 2016 presidential election.”
    He is referring specifically to the firing of James Comey, FBI director, who was overseeing the probe.
    Regardless of whether Congress moves to unseat Trump, the talk of impeachment could cripple his presidency. (Even the Latin root of the word impeachment -- pedica -- means, "fetter for the ankle, snare," according to The American Heritage Dictionary.)
     In today's usage, impeach is defined as "to make an accusation against," or "to charge (a public official) with improper conduct in office before a proper tribunal."
    The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the "sole power of impeachment." The Senate "shall have the sole power to try all impeachments," according to the Constitution, but "no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members present."
    The charge Green mentioned -- obstruction of justice --was used against two other presidents: Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment, and Bill Clinton, who was impeached in the House but acquitted by the Senate. Another president, Andrew Johnson, was impeached on other charges. The following is a compressed account of each case, along with sources for further study:

Andrew Johnson (1808-1875): Johnson, a Union Democrat, had been vice president under Abraham Lincoln and took office as the 17th president after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. He had “sought to carry out the lenient Reconstruction of the South envisioned by President Abraham Lincoln,” recounts William A. DeGregorio in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (Barricade Books; 2013).
     But while the war was over, Northerners and Southerners were still at odds.
    “The South had no intention of sharing political power with former slaves; Radical Republicans in the North, led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate, were determined to punish the South and to prevent a resurgence of the southern Democratic power base that had dominated national affairs prior to the Civil War,” DeGregorio wrote.
    In the turbulent years following Lincoln's death, Congress approved measures aimed at harnessing Johnson’s powers. One of those measures, the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, forbade Johnson from firing some public officials without the Senate’s consent.
    That didn’t stop Johnson. He fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who disagreed with the policy of allowing Southern states to rejoin the union without securing the rights of African-Americans.
    In response to Johnson's defiance, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach him on Feb. 24, 1868.  But after a trial in the Senate, Johnson was acquitted. The Tenure of Office Act was later repealed by Congress and declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. [See an article on the Encyclopedia Britannica website.]  
    Johnson finished serving the four years of Lincoln’s second term in office, but he lost his bid to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1868. That year, the Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour of New York, who lost to the Republican, Ulysses S. Grant. 

Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994): The 37th president resigned after what was then considered the biggest political scandal in American history. Nixon, a Republican, was first elected president in 1968. But his impeachment woes stemmed from events during his re-election campaign in 1972 – specifically, the arrest of five men caught burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
    Nixon maintained his innocence, but there was more drama on the horizon. Here are three examples:

  • In June 1973, John Dean, who had served as White House counsel, testified that Nixon was involved in the cover-up of the crime.
  • One month later, Alexander Butterfield, special assistant to the president, testified before the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon had installed a taping system in the White House.
  • In October 1973, Nixon ordered Justice Department officials to fire the independent prosecutor.

    Nixon refused to turn over tapes of his conversations to the Senate investigating committee until ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. One of the tapes had an 18-and-a-half minute gap. Even so, the recordings discredited Nixon. 
    On July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and failure to comply with congressional subpoenas. Rather than face impeachment and trial, Nixon announced his resignation Aug. 8, 1974. 
    Gerald Ford, Nixon's vice president, took office and, one month later, pardoned Nixon.

Bill Clinton (1946- ): The 42nd president, a Democrat, was the focus of a lengthy investigation that initially centered on his real estate transactions involving Whitewater Development Corp. in Arkansas. But the case took a grisly turn when Vincent W. Foster Jr., deputy White House counsel and a friend of Clinton and his wife, Hillary, was found dead of a gunshot wound in a park outside of Washington, D.C.  
    “Conservative groups promoted dark theories about how the Clintons had had Foster murdered because he might have to reveal Whitewater secrets,” recounts the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture online.
     Two special prosecutors, Robert B. Fiske Jr. and later, Kenneth Starr, confirmed that Foster had committed suicide. Additionally, the Whitewater probe resulted in no charges against the Clintons.
     But Starr had expanded his investigation. And Clinton’s presidency took several soap-operatic turns, as he was accused of sexual harassment involving a past employee in Arkansas, and subsequently of having sexual relations with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
     In September 1998, Starr submitted a report to Congress with 11 possible grounds for impeachment, specifically involving Clinton’s alleged efforts to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky.
     In December of that year, the U.S. House voted to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. He was tried before the Senate one month later. On Feb. 12, 1999, the Senate voted to acquit Clinton, who apologized for his actions.
     Clinton continued in office. In 2001, as his second term was ending, Gallup reported that 66 percent of those surveyed approved of the way he was handling his job.


     To know more:

     Related:

     Firing of FBI director evokes history

     Ranking the presidents, best to worst

     New Presidential ranking places Obama 12th

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