Are the first indictments by Special Counsel Robert Mueller like the lighting of a fuse that could lead to the president’s impeachment?
Impeachment always seems to be bandied about as a possibility in every presidential administration. But it has only been seriously raised with three presidents in our nation’s history – Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton –although no president has yet been removed from office through the procedure.
Our nation’s first impeachment, of Andrew Johnson, wasn’t its finest hour
The first president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor who was deeply unpopular with Republicans in Congress due to his unwillingness to pursue their agenda for Reconstruction after the Civil War.
The House of Representatives drew up 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson that focused on his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, a law drafted to shackle the president by disallowing him from firing members of his cabinet without approval from the Senate.
The law passed over Johnson’s veto. It was designed to force him to keep Edwin M. Stanton in place as Secretary of War, a position he had held during Lincoln’s tenure. Stanton was adamantly committed to congressional policies for Reconstruction, which is why Johnson wanted him gone.
Johnson fired Stanton during a congressional recess. That resulted in a standoff where Stanton barricaded himself in his office, refusing to leave.
Three days later, the House delivered its articles of impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is the only legal constitutional standard for impeachment.
The fact of the matter, however, is that “high crimes and misdemeanors” means precisely what Congress decides that it means. There is no objective legal standard to which a president can appeal.
If Congress decides to impeach a president because they don’t like his hair, there is no legal impediment to prevent them from doing so. In the case of Andrew Johnson, the impeachment was based on a law that was likely unconstitutional in the first place.
History has largely judged the matter as an act of political pettiness rather than a legitimate grievance. Although it bears remembering that Andrew Johnson frequently ranks last in historians’ ratings of presidential greatness.
A bipartisan consensus for Richard Nixon’s departure, if not impeachment
It was 106 years after the Johnson episode before Congress began the process to impeach another president. Richard Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in led the House Judiciary Committee to draft three articles of impeachment.
Nixon resigned before there was a vote on the matter. Unlike in the Johnson impeachment, there was a clear consensus, , even if still emerging as bipartisan agreement, that Nixon had committed crimes worthy of removal from office. His resignation was merely preemptive of his inevitable removal.
Bill Clinton was impeached, and probably would have been convicted if he wasn’t so popular
Bill Clinton’s impeachment clearly demonstrated the political nature of the process. When the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal initially broke, many Democrats believed that his presidency wouldn’t be able to survive.
But as Clinton stonewalled and tirelessly ground away at the nation’s patience, it became clear that public opinion was with the president, regardless of whether or not he had broken the law.
Democratic Senator Robert Byrd made public statements insisting that the president had committed perjury and obstructed justice. Still, Byrd moved to have all impeachment charges dismissed in the Senate and voted to acquit Clinton despite the fact that he believed him to be guilty.
Just as a president can be impeached for any reason, no matter how frivolous, he can also be acquitted by the same standard.
Is impeachment in Donald Trump’s future?
The metric to determine whether or not Trump’s days are numbered, then, is not any legal argument from Robert Mueller or anyone else, but rather the president’s approval rating.
According to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, Mueller’s indictment of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and the guilty plea that the Special Counsel’s office has entered into with George Papadopoulos, has “nothing to do with the President, [and] nothing to do with the President’s campaign or campaign activity.”
So far, Trump’s base has been fiercely loyal to him. The outcry against any impeachment proceeding would likely scare any Republicans eager to take action against him.
But much will change if the Democrats take control of Congress in the midterm elections and Trump’s approval rating remains as low as it now is.