Long before Trump, impeachment loomed over multiple presidents
WASHINGTON - As President George Bush prepared to order U.S. troops into war to eject Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, he feared it could end his presidency. “If it drags out,” he dictated to his diary Dec. 20, 1990, “not only will I take the blame, but I will probably have impeachment proceedings filed against me.”
Eleven days later, in a letter to his children, he quoted a Democratic senator telling him that “if it is drawn out,” he should “be prepared for some in Congress to file impeachment papers.” On the day the war began, a Democratic congressman did just that, introducing a resolution of impeachment accusing him of “conspiring to commit crimes against the peace."
Fortunately for Bush, the war was relatively brief, and efforts to impeach him fizzled. But he was hardly the only president to worry. While President Donald Trump is just the fourth commander in chief in U.S. history to confront a serious threat of impeachment, the prospect hung over many of his predecessors, a nagging worry in the back of the mind for some, a constitutional sword of Damocles for others.
Impeachment has served not just as a means for removing a corrupt president from office, as outlined in the Constitution; in fact, it has never actually accomplished that purpose. Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both impeached by the House but acquitted after Senate trials, while President Richard Nixon resigned before the full House could vote. But impeachment has served as a deterrent, a consequence that presidents had to consider when making decisions that crossed into questionable territory.
Presidents have been accused of high crimes and misdemeanors for misconduct and for disputed policy choices. They have been targeted for impeachment for abusing their power, withholding information from Congress and providing poor moral leadership. They have been threatened with removal for violating court orders, statutory law, the Constitution and even the United Nations Charter.
Beyond Johnson, Nixon, Clinton and now Trump, lawmakers have filed formal impeachment resolutions against at least seven other presidents, meaning that 1 out of every 4 occupants of the White House has faced accusations of high crimes and misdemeanors, while others were threatened. Most of the time, the effort posed no serious jeopardy. But as with Bush, it could weigh on them nonetheless.
“Every president’s concerned about his legacy, and that leads them to be concerned about whether impeachment is a possibility,” said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina. “Oftentimes, that leads them to be very vigilant to monitor misconduct - and sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not.”
As conceived by the framers of the Constitution, impeachment was never meant to remedy incompetence or policy differences, akin to a vote of no confidence in a parliamentary system, but it was reserved for larger offenses against the republic. But the framers never explained precisely what they meant, and so each generation has, in effect, redefined it.
The first formal impeachment effort against a president came in 1843 when a House member introduced a resolution calling for an inquiry against President John Tyler for “arbitrary, despotic and corrupt abuse of the veto power” after he rejected two tariff bills favored by his own Whig Party.
The clash was a test of Tyler’s legitimacy. He was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency after President William Henry Harrison died a month into his term, and Tyler had no strong support in either political party. The matter came to a vote by the full House, which rejected the resolution 127-83.
In the years that followed, other presidents were threatened with impeachment. After President James Polk took the country to war with Mexico on misleading terms, opponents called for impeachment. “In my judgment, it is an impeachable offense,” Daniel Webster declared at a rally in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
A committee held hearings on impeaching President James Buchanan, widely considered the worst U.S. commander in chief. Opponents talked about impeaching President Ulysses Grant amid corruption allegations against his administration. Even the sainted President Abraham Lincoln was warned by an adviser weeks into his administration that he might be impeached if he abandoned Fort Sumter.
Johnson’s impeachment by the House in 1868 followed previous attempts to impeach him on other charges. The House voted the year before to authorize an investigation of his conduct, and the House Judiciary Committee reported an impeachment resolution, but the full House defeated it 108-57. Only after he fired Edwin Stanton, the war secretary allied with the Radical Republicans in Congress, did the House vote to impeach Johnson.