More presidents have had affairs in the White House than have been impeached. More presidents have died in office of natural causes than have been impeached. In fact, more presidents have secretly, and probably illegally, taped their Oval Office conversations than have been impeached.
Americans don’t do impeachment often. They do it reluctantly, they do it selectively, they do it carefully. But above all they do it rarely.
American presidents have done unwise and immoral things before and yet they were not impeached.
Ronald Reagan survived the Iran-Contra affair of 1986, with a surfeit of illegality, without being impeached. George W. Bush undertook a war in Iraq in 2003, on false information if not outright false pretenses, without being impeached. No one contemplated impeachment when James Polk took the United States to war, probably illegally, against Mexico in 1846. Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois asked penetrating questions on the floor of the House of Representatives about Mr. Polk’s decision, but the word impeachment did not pass his lips. Nor did anyone speak seriously of impeachment when Mr. Lincoln, as president during the Civil War, trampled civil liberties and suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
All of which is why the spectacle now unfolding in the U.S. capital is so remarkable.
As Donald Trump and his supporters have argued – and will argue repeatedly as the procedure unfolds – a country that selects its leaders as an expression of the will of the people is chary of undoing the people’s choice.
Presidential impeachment – it has been undertaken three times in the 2½ centuries since the country declared independence from Great Britain, where the notion of impeachment originated in the 14th century – is borne of frustration, anger and outrage.
But it also creates new sources of frustration, anger and outrage.
The fact that Americans are divided over whether the country should proceed with impeachment is both cause and result of that frustration, anger and outrage. This month’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 49 per cent of those surveyed believe that Mr. Trump should be removed from office, with 46 per cent saying he should not be removed, a measure of that deep divide.
Indeed, presidential impeachment – it has only occurred twice, for Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998), and both were acquitted in the Senate – is the ultimate American condemnation, the political equivalent of the colonial Puritan procedure of putting a wrongdoer through the mortifying ordeal of being placed in the stocks in the public square of a New England town.
But the Trump impeachment vote – it likely will come this month, and is almost certain to pass the House of Representatives and send the matter to the Senate for a trial – is different from the two contemporary antecedents: the 1974 near-impeachment of Richard Nixon, who resigned, and the impeachment of Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Trump’s impeachment is centred in his alleged actions with another country, a specific impetus for the American founding fathers’ 18th century decision to include impeachment in the Constitution. It will have been prompted by the President’s telephone call to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and his alleged withholding of U.S. military aid unless the country’s new President agreed to undertake an investigation of the affairs of the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, now a Democratic presidential candidate.
“Today, unlike in 1998, the abuse in public trust is directly tied to the president’s conduct of America’s foreign affairs,” Paul Rosenzweig, senior counsel to Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater investigation of Mr. Clinton and deputy assistant secretary of homeland security for George W. Bush, contended this week in a Los Angeles Times op-ed column. He argued, moreover, that the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts were fuelled by the presidents’ efforts to produce cover up as much as by their actions themselves.
This is not the case in the Trump situation. “Sadly,” he argued, “we have now reached a case where a president’s official use of authority is what’s in question.”
Another difference: This impeachment is being conducted only two decades after the last impeachment. The distance between the Johnson and Nixon impeachments was more than a century, which made for a sense of unfamiliarity and drama that this undertaking lacks. Americans now are far more familiar, and thus less intimidated today with the process, which has occurred two times since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup.
Mr. Trump’s political profile also sets this effort apart – and it almost certainly will be central to his defenders’ argument.
Unlike Mr. Nixon, who was a member of the House of Representatives and the Senate before being vice-president for eight years, and Mr. Clinton, who served a dozen years as governor of Arkansas, Mr. Trump now occupies his first political position. Both impeachment drives occurred in their second terms – indeed in their sixth years in the White House – when the limits of their powers should have been far better known to them than to Mr. Trump, who is in only the third year of his first term. Thus this will allow Republicans to argue that the President is inexperienced and showed poor judgment, but did not break the law – and as a result should not be impeached and removed.
Another element of the GOP anti-impeachment playbook almost certainly will be to appeal to Americans’ collective exasperation over Mr. Trump’s actions and behaviour – the notion, as Napoleon Bonaparte said of the French politician and diplomat Talleyrand, that he “never knew anyone so entirely indifferent to right and wrong.”
That may be the greatest irony of all, because that collective public exasperation – and its handmaiden, the fact that, according to a separate query in the Journal/NBC News Poll, for the first time in 15 years Americans are equally impatient with both parties – was produced in large measure by the man who today is seeking to evade impeachment itself.