Trump's True Crime: He Made People Laugh at Congress
Since impeachment is a political rarity, it is not unexpected that analysts would seek out the few parallels from U.S. history to put in context the assault being waged against President Trump by the Democrats. It has been argued that Trump is not being afforded the same rights by the opposition party in Congress that were extended to his impeachment predecessors Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But, while significant, those are not the most relevant precedents.
To draw a more apt comparison to the political persecution of Trump, we need to go back to the first actual impeachment of a president, which happened in 1868, when Andrew Johnson was harassed by his Republican opponents in Congress, in part because he did not agree with their policies on Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War.
The meat of the impeachment hinged on Johnson’s rejection of the Tenure of Office Act, which added to the Senate’s constitutional power to confirm presidential appointments by also denying the president the right to fire Cabinet members once they had been confirmed. To modern sensibilities, this seems absurd and unworkable, and so too did it seem to Johnson. He fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had been appointed by Lincoln, and promptly found himself facing charges of committing an impeachable offense.
Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat who had been selected by Lincoln — the first Republican president — as his second-term running mate to symbolize the coming together of the nation as the Civil War approached its end. Most of the Republicans in Congress – they proudly called themselves “Radical” Republicans – did not share Lincoln’s confidence in Johnson, who was an unpolished populist in the same vein as Donald Trump. Moreover, they thought Johnson should never have become president in the first place, much like Democrats’ attitude toward Trump today. Lincoln wasn’t supposed to die. By removing Johnson from office, the Republicans were just restoring the natural order and disposing of someone they considered an accidental president.
Whether they had used the Tenure of Office Act specifically to entrap Johnson or not, it had that effect. Johnson believed that the new law was an unconstitutional abridgment of his authority, and so he ignored the law in order to challenge it. He knew that Congress was trying to neutralize him because he opposed the Republican plan for Reconstruction.
If there were any doubt that the House of Representatives in 1868 was engaged in a strictly political persecution of a president they hated, consider the language of impeachment Article 10, which argued:
“That said Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof, and of the harmony and courtesies which ought to exist and be maintained between the executive and legislative branches of the Government of the United States … did attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States, and the several branches thereof, to impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress and the legislative power thereof, which all officers of the government ought inviolably to preserve and maintain, and to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress and the laws by it duly and constitutionally enacted…”
In other words, Johnson was a boor who had the temerity to speak ill of Congress! This reveals the low bar of impeachment when it is wielded as a weapon and it is an echo of what truly annoys Nancy Pelosi about our lowbrow president. How easy to substitute Donald Trump’s name before the claim that “he did bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.”
No doubt members of Congress don’t like to have their noses tweaked, but what they should remember is that the president (either Johnson or Trump) is usually doing it on behalf of us, the American people. Indeed, the last part of Article 10 brings to my mind a picture of Speaker Pelosi scowling as she watches Trump tickle the crowd at one of his MAGA rallies with his schtick about “Pencil-neck Schiff,” “Nervous Nancy” and the Do-Nothing Congress. You really would be forgiven for thinking that Johnson was an avatar of Trump, based on this further description of the 1868 bill of particulars against the president:
“... in pursuance of his said design and intent, openly and publicly and before divers assemblages of citizens of the United States, convened in divers parts thereof ... [Johnson] did … on divers ... days and times … make and declare, with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces, as well against Congress as the laws of the United States duly enacted thereby, amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing.”
There were other articles of impeachment as well — 11 in all — but none rose to any level of true seriousness. In the end, the Senate only voted on three of the charges, and Johnson narrowly escaped conviction despite the Senate being heavily dominated by Republicans. It was to seven of them who could not be bullied into submission that Democrat Johnson owed his survival. They put country ahead of politics.
“I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution,” said Sen. James Grimes of Iowa, “for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.”
It should be noted that future president John F. Kennedy included Sen. Edmund Ross, one of the seven Republicans who saved Johnson, in his “Profiles in Courage.” Ross and the other six paid the ultimate political price — none was re-elected.
However, according to an article in the U.S. Senate’s online archive, “Ross was vindicated by the Supreme Court, which declared the Tenure of Office Act to be unconstitutional, and praised by the press and the public for having saved the country from dictatorship.”
Let’s hope some Democrats and Republicans will earn their way into a sequel to “Profiles in Courage” by standing against the naked power grab of Democrats who wanted to overturn an election and eliminate an “Unacceptable President.”