America has been overtaken by an impeachment frenzy. With attempts to impeach every US president since Bill Clinton, the constitutional impeachment and removal procedure has been co-opted by partisans on both sides as a political tool to discredit and dispose of opposition leaders.
Political opponents of the Trump administration have threatened filing impeachment charges since before his inauguration. No other president has been forced to contend with a political action committee (established in February 2017) created for the sole purpose of lobbying for his impeachment. Even if current calls for impeachment are valid, how much more can the American public withstand?
Recklessly endangering the welfare of our political culture, our elected officials and the main-stream media have been recklessly fanatical about impeachment for decades, which has only intensified in recent years. The American respect for the gravity of impeachment has gradually eroded, and we have become blind to not only the severity of impeachment charges but also to the division sewn by attempts to remove the only nationally-elected official of the United States.
Impeachment: Constitutional Meaning
The Constitution’s language defining the offenses punishable by impeachment and removal from office is intentionally vague to ensure applicability to a variety of situations; however, the procedure for impeachment and removal is abundantly clear. Acting as a prosecutor, the House of Representatives has the responsibility of engaging in a thorough investigation into the accused official’s conduct. When substantial evidence supports Articles of Impeachment—i.e. formal charges—the House votes on whether those charges are valid; if a sufficient majority votes in favor, that official is impeached.*
Only after the House has formally impeached the official is he eligible to be removed from office. The Senate then holds a trial in which Representatives, typically from the Judiciary Committee, present their case for removal and the accused has the right to defend himself. A 2/3 majority of senators voting affirming the House’s charges will remove the official from his position.
While “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II Section 4) can cover a multitude of governmental malfeasances, Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 65 provided not only a more complete definition of impeachable crimes but also recognized the impacts impeachment has upon the public:
The subjects of [impeachment] are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words, from the abuse or violations of some public trust [relating] chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself to pre-existing factions….[T]here will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
Although a mechanism to remove corrupt and dangerous officials from their positions of power is vital to the protection of liberty in a republic, impeachment is inherently tumultuous and should not be pursued recklessly. Our current tendency to weaponize this fail-safe mechanism to eliminate political opponents damages public trust just as much, if not more, than the punishable actions themselves.
Lessons from History: The First Presidential Impeachment
Although the impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice and the unfinished impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon regarding tampering with the 1972 election are closer in chronological proximity to the impeachment case against Trump, the dynamics of political tribalism in 2019 bear a greater resemblance to the challenges of the first presidential impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Attempting to forge bipartisan unity in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln chose Johnson—a Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee who had pledged his loyalty to the Union—as his running mate in the 1864 election. When Johnson assumed role of Chief Executive after Lincoln’s assassination, his Reconstruction policy of quickly returning rebellious states to full participation dramatically differed from the radial Republican agenda of inflicting punishment on the South.
Although the House of Representatives finally found technical violations with which to charge Johnson in the last months of his presidential term, the partisan motivations for removing Johnson from office were blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer. While the House did impeach the Johnson, the Senate trial concluded that he should not be removed from office. The authors of a well-respected Constitutional Law textbook clarify the delicacy of this moment in the history of our fragile republic:
Nineteenth-century Americans recognized that the Senate’s failure to convict Johnson did not vindicate his policies or his presidency. Johnson was disciplined and his actions repudiated, even if he was not removed. The Senate majority found a path between competing views….The impeachment power remained available to check abuses of office, but was not to be used to remove incompetent or disagreeable presidents.
The Senate had the wisdom not only to make the healthy distinction between impeachment and removal as separate punishments for governmental malfeasance, but also to interpret the needs of a deeply torn nation. Removing a president for all but the grossest of violations will create more instability than it is intended to correct.
What Does This Mean for Trump?
The impeachment process is, by design, lengthy and complex, which is our only protection against volatile political drama inciting nation-wide chaos. As more information unfolds, it is easy to offer judgement based upon personal opinions; however, the president deserves the due process of the impeachment and removal procedure.
Any action as serious as impeachment should be based solely upon the facts and evidence. Hopefully the leaders to whom we have entrusted the oversight of our government will have the wisdom to recognize their power and responsibility.
*See Article I Sections 3 and 4 regarding the impeachment process.
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T H E U N V A R N I S H E D B L O G
Gabrielle M. Etzel is a recent graduate of Grove City College with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Economics. She is a freelance Political Analyst, Writer, and Editor in Chief of the Unvarnished Blog<https://theunvarnishedblog.wordpress.com/>, direct email to firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com> | LinkedIn <https://www.linkedin.com/in/gabrielle-m-etzel-60090/>
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She is also a contributor to the Yonkers Tribune and the radio program, Westchester On The Level. Although she plans to pursue graduate study in American Politics and Public Policy, Gabrielle’s primary career goal is to make quality social science content accessible to a variety of audiences. If you liked this piece, consider checking out The Unvarnished Blog<https://theunvarnishedblog.wordpress.com/>.
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The Unvarnished Blog Editor in Chief Gabrielle M. Etzel, presidential impeachment process, Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 65, “Treason Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II Section 4), impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice, unfinished impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon, impeachment frenzy against Donald Trump,