Impeachment history reveals risk for both Trump and Dems

Impeachment is in the air.

The Mueller report made no criminal charges against President Trump, but questioned some of his attempts to obstruct the inquiry.  Some in Congress believe he should be impeached for those actions.

Impeachment is almost always political, and it could well be in this case.  Only Democrats are considering impeachment.  They understand that impeachment would be a political act.

It can be voted by a majority of the House of Representatives, where Democrats now enjoy control.  After impeachment, the Senate can convict by a two-thirds vote.  That would require some GOP senators to vote to convict.  That’s quite unlikely, making the House vote little more than a gesture.

For House Democrats, impeaching Trump might only be worth doing if it helped them in the 2020 elections.  If not, it could place a burden on Democratic candidates.  Obviously, nobody knows the answer.

In fairness, some Democrats believe that Trump’s actions to try to kill the Mueller investigation did truly transgress the limits on presidential powers.  They may believe that the issue needs to be tested for the sake of history, not only current politics.

That possibility could have influenced Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.  Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General William Barr went along.  All three are Republicans.  Rather than charging Trump with criminal acts, they may have chosen to leave only the impeachment option.

The Constitution contains the power of impeachment to help ensure that limits could be placed on federal officials, not only presidents, who engage in criminal activity or exceed their powers.  The House, as prosecutor, and the Senate, as court, decide.  The Supreme Court has ruled that the judiciary is not involved.

The penalty for impeachment may be political embarrassment; the penalty for conviction is expulsion.  Neither is the same as a court judgment of criminal guilt.

Several impeachment proceedings have resulted in conviction and expulsion, usually when connected to a criminal act.  But in the most important cases, no conviction was obtained.

In 1805, the House, controlled by Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, impeached Samuel Chase, a Federalist-appointed Supreme Court justice, who had been openly hostile to Jefferson.  Some of Jefferson’s supporters voted against impeachment as did some in the Senate, which did not convict.

The Jeffersonians were politically motivated in taking action against Chase.  But some of them put the independence of the judiciary above partisanship.  Federalist judicial appointees would survive, even as presidential politics changed.

The first attempt to remove a president came when Republicans tried to oust Andrew Johnson, a Democratic senator who had been Lincoln’s second-term vice president.  Republicans wanted to transform southern society, not merely suppress secession.  Johnson wanted to go easy on the South, allowing it to pursue racist policies.

By a straight partisan vote, with southern Democrats not yet back in Congress, Johnson was impeached.  The Senate missed conviction by one vote, after seven Republicans voted to acquit.  Contrary to myth, none paid a political price for his vote.

Maine’s William Pitt Fessenden, a Bowdoin graduate, cast the first Republican vote against conviction.  He disliked Johnson’s policy, but rejected using conviction for partisan political purposes.  In the end, Johnson prevailed, when a fully restored Congress backed his policy.

In 1974, a bipartisan House committee vote recommended impeachment of President Richard Nixon for covering up his campaign’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices.  His actions may have been criminal.

When Nixon learned that many Senate Republicans would vote to convict him, he resigned.  The elections that year yielded a crushing Democratic majority.

In 1999, the House impeached President Bill Clinton by bipartisan vote for lying to investigators about his personal, non-political transgressions.  The Senate refused to convict.

Several Republicans, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, opposed conviction.  A Republican won the presidency in 2000, but the party lost seats in Congress.

History shows heavy, if not absolute, partisanship in the impeachment process.  Only in Nixon’s case was impeachment connected to probable criminal action as president.  Only in his case did it, or the threat of it, work.

Because impeachment is a political act, the Democrats must make a political judgment.  Will they help or hurt themselves politically by impeaching Trump without winning conviction and possibly without a single Republican vote?  History goes both ways.

Besides, impeachment might not prevent a Trump comeback.  Federal judge Alcee Hastings, impeached and convicted, is now Florida’s longest serving member of Congress.  Andrew Johnson returned to the Senate and was sworn into office by the vice president who, as a senator, had voted to convict him.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.