Before President Trump, three of the previous 44 presidents faced impeachment and possible removal from office. Mainers played key roles in all three cases.
When the U.S. was still a century and a half in the future, a classic case of impeachment occurred in England. It is similar to what is done now, though the outcome today would be less harsh.
Charles I was the king of England in the 1600s and believed he reigned because God chose him to rule – “divine right.” He shut down Parliament for years, levied unauthorized taxes and kept much of the money to support his lifestyle. He was above the law, he claimed.
Parliament insisted on its rights based on Magna Carta, an agreement with an earlier king. In the end, the two sides fought each other, not in London, but on the battlefield.
Documents were uncovered, showing that Charles had sought support from Ireland and countries on the European continent. Even some of his supporters thought he had gone too far. He was taken into custody. Parliament created a judicial commission, and Charles went on trial.
King Charles was charged with having tried to use foreign help for his personal purposes, enabling him to hold onto power. The commission found the king had abused his powers, and, in 1649, Charles was beheaded.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told that story. He insisted that the American Constitution should provide for a president’s removal from office, less drastic than execution.
Impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate would not be a criminal trial, but only a way to remove presidents who abused the broad, but limited, powers that they alone were given under the Constitution.
When authorized, the House procedure starts with its Judiciary Committee. It may propose charges, called Articles of Impeachment. In 1974, Maine Rep. Bill Cohen, a committee member, voted for charges against Richard Nixon, the president of his own Republican Party.
Presidents may object to an impeachment inquiry, but their real defense comes later. They must provide documents and executive branch witnesses. They probably cannot claim the benefits of “executive privilege” – the protection of confidential communications with the president.
President Washington first used executive privilege. But he declared it did not apply in case of impeachment, which is the House’s exclusive power under the Constitution.
The next step is a full House vote on the Committee’s proposed charges. Representatives Pingree and Golden may vote for some or all of the Articles. If Articles are adopted, the president is impeached, much like a grand jury indictment. The president would be charged, not found guilty.
If a president is impeached, the Senate decides on removal from office, the only possible penalty. The House selects prosecutors, called “managers,” from among its members, and presidents provide their own defense lawyers. The Chief Justice presides, and senators act as jurors, saying nothing.
To achieve the overwhelming two-thirds vote required for removal, some of the president’s own party would have to vote for conviction.
In the 1868 trial of President Andrew Johnson, the Republicans wanted him removed. Johnson, a Democrat who succeeded the assassinated Republican Abraham Lincoln, was saved by one vote. The first Republican to vote against his removal was Maine’s William Pitt Fessenden. .
In 1974, Nixon, a Republican, resigned when he learned that many GOP senators would vote with the Democrats for his removal, achieving the required two-thirds vote. Both Maine senators were Democrats.
In the 1999 trial of President Bill Clinton, whose removal was sought by the Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Maine’s two GOP senators, voted against the charges and the result did not come close to a two-thirds vote for removal.
If Trump is impeached, the charges would likely include his seeking support from Ukraine for his political campaign, his business receiving money, called “emoluments,” from foreign governments while he is president, and his attempts to obstruct the impeachment inquiry and other investigations.
The Constitution says that removal may result from conviction for undefined “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Ultimately, the Senate would decide if Trump has abused his powers.
This is an unusual historical moment – the formal attempt to remove a president. Removal, though not impeachment by itself, would partly reverse the previous election’s result, as Trump claims. But Vice President Mike Pence, elected with Trump, would become president.
Congress is populated by politicians, and its decisions will be both political and patriotic. A few, like Fessenden, Cohen, Snowe and Collins, all Maine Republicans, might not simply follow the party line.