Guest Columnist

The history of impeaching presidents

2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with potential supporters outside his helicopter at the Iowa S
2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with potential supporters outside his helicopter at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, August 15, 2015. (KC McGinnis / The Gazette)

The impeachment cases of three former presidents provide significant information concerning the current process. In particular, we have learned impeachment proceedings involve a mixture of legalities, politics, and conscience.

The U.S. House of Representatives has the sole power to impeach a president. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the ensuing trial in the Senate with its members acting as the jury, a two-thirds majority required for conviction.

While an impeachment trial resembles usual legal processes, such as Senators taking an oath to perform “impartial justice,” there are important differences. For example, jurors are normally disqualified if they have any significant relationship with the defendant. But political parties, not in existence at the time of the Constitutional Convention, have connected presidents with Congress in significant ways.

Members of Congress are also associated with a president by various political connections, friendships, and even family relations. If President Kennedy had been impeached, his brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, would have served on the jury.

Impeachment proceedings have been filed against four presidents, but none have been removed from office by that process. Andrew Johnson came within one vote of removal in 1868. Richard Nixon resigned before a formal vote of impeachment. Bill Clinton stood trial, but was not convicted. And now Donald Trump awaits his Senate trial.

Although political party ties have complicated the original intent of the Constitution to establish three separate branches of government in a system of checks and balances, it is noteworthy that in the three previous cases of impeachment the result included a significant bipartisan element.

Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, faced a super majority of Republican jurors in the Senate. But when seven Republicans, including Sen. James Grimes of Iowa, voted for acquittal, he escaped conviction by a single vote.

A bipartisan vote in the House Judiciary Committee recommended the impeachment of Richard Nixon. His resignation came a day after a group of Republican senators informed him they planned to vote for his removal from office.

Bill Clinton drew enough votes from Republican senators that neither of the two counts of impeachment against him reached a simple majority, let alone the required two-thirds.

Outcomes of the three previous impeachment processes indicate the party composition of Congress is highly important, as well as the state of the economy, factors of war or peace, and the popularity of the president.

Andrew Johnson was caught in the throes of the aftermath of the Civil War and faced an opposition Republican Party that controlled both houses of Congress, including more than enough Senate votes to convict him. Seven Republican senators, however, “voted their conscience,” as one of them said, and Johnson remained in office.

At the time of Nixon’s impeachment process, the Democrats held a majority of seats in both houses of Congress, but were 13 short of the required 67 required for conviction in the Senate. Other elements that contributed to the eventual bipartisan support for his removal included a nation weary of the Vietnam War, an economy with inflation nearing double digits, and Nixon’s public approval rating drooping to 25 percent.

Bill Clinton also faced an opposition party with majorities in both houses of Congress, including 55 Republican senators. But a robust economy, relative peace, and limited public support (29%) for impeachment provided a favorable context for Clinton’s acquittal. Indeed, his public approval numbers increased during the impeachment trial.

What does the foregoing portend for the impeachment of Donald Trump? His party controls the Senate with 53 seats, the economy is strong, and no unpopular war of the likes of the Vietnam or Korean experience exist. However, polls have consistently indicated half of all respondents favor removing Trump from office. That compares to 38% against Nixon and 29% against Clinton at the outset of their impeachment proceedings.

Given all the above factors, it is unlikely President Trump will be removed from office. It is also unlikely any future president will be removed from office. To have a president of one party in office and a majority of the opposition party in both houses of Congress, and with a two-thirds majority in the Senate, is highly unlikely.

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But there is a place in our legal system for the impeachment of officials who have abused their constitutional responsibilities. No matter what the outcome of the current impeachment trial, it is an important reminder that ours is a system of laws — not people.

Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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