Like other Washington-based journalists, I’m often asked by civilians — and by that, I mean non-political junkies — some variation of this question: Will Donald J. Trump get impeached?
The short answer is that no one knows the future, but I covered the White House in the not-so-distant past and will attest to this lesson: If a president wants to get himself impeached badly enough, he certainly can pull it off.
To be more precise about the most recent case in point: William Jefferson Clinton essentially dared House Republicans to impeach him. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Bill Clinton lied to congressional leaders, his own Cabinet, the White House staff, and the American people. When he also got cute with a special prosecutor, the die was cast.
Did Clinton’s sins, which included perjury, equate to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Constitution’s prerequisite for impeachment? That was a matter of controversy then, and remains so today. I didn’t think so, but it turns out that brazenly insulting the intelligence of the members of the House Judiciary Committee while simultaneously playing word games with a grand jury puts a president at risk. And Bill Clinton should have known better. Unlike Donald Trump, he had taught constitutional law. Trump never went to law school.
The current president exhibits a similar, Clintonesque defiance of the investigative process. In that way, the 45th U.S. president is like the 42nd, only with fewer inhibitions and less education. Does that mean Mike Pence is the next president? Perhaps, but remember: Although Clinton got impeached in the House, he beat the rap in the Senate.
The more apt historical analogy might be the troubled second term of Richard Milhous Nixon. In some senses, “The Donald” resembles both “Tricky Dick” and “Slick Willie.” For one thing, all three men demonstrated a propensity to shade the truth. Temperamentally, Trump seems more Nixonian, however, especially in the way he stokes his loathing of the media, keeps enemies lists, and nurtures slights and setbacks for years.
Personalities aside, Watergate — like the current investigation into possible Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election — wasn’t a minor flap that a president foolishly turned into a major scandal. It entailed allegations of serious attacks on our constitutional democracy. Moreover, Trump’s firing of an FBI director investigating his campaign has echoes of Nixon’s attempts to purge the Justice Department of prosecutors probing the 1972 campaign.
“I’m having déjà vu all over again,” deputy chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee Rufus Edmisten told The Atlantic recently. And that was before President Trump began attacking Attorney General Jeff Sessions in public, perhaps in hopes of getting him to resign so someone can fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump might not get that far. “If Jeff Sessions is fired,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters Thursday, “there will be holy hell to pay.”
Graham was lauded in the press for expressing this sentiment, the media today being far more anti-Trump than it was anti-Nixon. Yet, in staking out that position, Lindsey Graham inadvertently evoked another impeachment, the first one in our country’s history. It is not one that has stood the test of time. That was the impeachment and Senate trial of Andrew Johnson.
The 17th U.S. president took office in 1865, as the Civil War was ending and in the crucible of Abraham Lincoln’s martyrdom. His first steps were true: Johnson graciously allowed the grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln to remain in the White House for more than a month, while he worked out of a modest set of offices in the Treasury Department. Like Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson faced an impossible task in trying to knit the country back together. And like Trump, Johnson went about it in the worst possible way.
In Congress, “Radical Republicans,” as they were known, had been dreading a showdown with Lincoln over how to treat the conquered South. Their fear was that Lincoln would prove too lenient with those who had taken up arms against their country. In Johnson, a politician known for his fiery anti-rebel rhetoric, these senators thought they had a sterner and less forgiving leader. They misjudged their man. Johnson was conciliatory toward former Confederates; too conciliatory, as it happened. He was also incompetent about it. Trying to channel Lincoln, he went further than Lincoln ever would have gone, and inevitably offended senators on both sides of the debate.
To counter the president’s disjointed approach and regressive racial policies, Congress sought to seize control of Reconstruction policy by passing legislation curbing his authority. Among them was the Tenure in Office Act, which prohibited the president from firing cabinet officers and other federal appointees without Senate approval.
At the White House, this was viewed as an insult, and unconstitutional besides. Johnson was right, as the Supreme Court would later rule, but in the short term, the courts were of no assistance. When he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the fight was on.
Impeached in the House of Representatives, Johnson’s fate headed to the Senate, where the vote was expected to be close. Johnson needed seven Republicans to buck their party’s leadership, and seven did. The last to break ranks was Edmund G. Ross of Kansas. Ross paid for his independence with his political career, and he gradually receded from Americans’ historical memory banks.
Nearly a century later, Edmund G. Ross enjoyed a resurgence when he was featured in John F. Kennedy’s great little book, “Profiles in Courage.” I imagine John McCain will be forgotten by future generations of Americans — and perhaps remembered again. Or maybe that fate awaits Lindsey Graham.
To be sure, Graham was launching a preemptive strike. It’s not really Sessions he’s protecting, although he likes the attorney general personally. Graham is trying to forestall the constitutional crisis that would ensue if Bob Mueller were sacked. Fair enough.
But let’s be fair to the Oval Office incumbent as well. Every president desires to choose his own Cabinet — and the Supreme Court says they have that right. No president would care for the odd confluence of events that produced a special prosecutor who was investigating his campaign, White House, family and personal finances. To Trump, it must seem as though his administration’s own Justice Department is essentially a power base controlled by political forces hostile to him.
What does all this tell us about where we’re heading? It’s worth remembering that after the Senate refused to convict Bill Clinton on a virtual party-line vote, he served out his term and left office with high job approval ratings. Richard Nixon wasn’t impeached (despite what Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine said on the 2016 campaign trail), but actions to remove him were proceeding apace in the House, and Nixon faced the near-certainty of conviction in the Senate. He resigned one step ahead of the posse.
As for Andrew Johnson, his reputation never recovered. He limped through the brief remainder of his term and was not nominated by his party in 1868. In other words, political gravity took over. This is a better way than impeachment, which some Democrats began plotting even before Trump took the oath of office. Democrats today don’t like being reminded of this fact, but the Civil War broke out when the losing side in a national election didn’t accept the results.
For guidance, Trump’s opponents might look to Horace Greeley, a Radical Republican newspaper editor and Lincoln ally. Greeley considered Lincoln’s successor a menace, just as Democrats feel about Barack Obama’s successor. But he also thought impeachment too extreme — and unnecessary. “Why hang a man,” Greeley wrote, “who is bent on hanging himself?”
Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.