Johnson and Trump: a tale of two presidential impeachments

High crimes doesn’t necessarily mean something illegal.

High crime: “A crime of infamous nature contrary to public morality but not technically constituting a felony.” (Miriam Webster Dictionary)

Some Trump-supporting Republicans have argued that President Trump has not committed a felony. They may be right, but that’s not the issue according to the above definition. Only three presidents have been impeached (indicted/charged) in American history: Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Andrew Johnson. To give historical perspective and a contrast to the current situation, let’s examine the Andrew Johnson impeachment.

Andrew Johnson was a Democrat from Tennessee who was the only southern U.S. Senator to oppose southern secession. He was appointed military governor of the state after the beginning of the Civil War. He was chosen by the Republican Lincoln to be his vice presidential running mate in 1864 for political reasons—to help the President gain votes from those in border states that had not left the Union. Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Johnson was charged with eleven articles of impeachment, nine of which were over the firing of his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson, who read the Constitution religiously, correctly believed that Congress did not have the power to stop him from firing his Secretary of War. A 1926 Supreme Court decision proved him right when it threw out the Tenure of Office Act in a similar case—the basis for Johnson’s impeachment—as unconstitutional.

In Article X of the Articles of Impeachment, Johnson was accused of “utter[ing] loud threats and bitter menaces…against Congress.” Johnson had stated that “Congress, factious and domineering, had undertaken to poison the minds of the American people.”

The background for this article of impeachment came as a result of Johnson taking a campaign tour of some northern and midwestern states in 1866 during the time of Congressional elections. This was the first time any president had done this. Presidents were supposed to be above politics, but Johnson was trying to rally support against Congressional Republicans. Republican-trained hecklers began to taunt him. He reacted badly, weakening the dignity of the office in the eyes of the press and the public.

Johnson antagonized his audiences by favoring forgiveness for Confederate leaders and criticizing Congressional Republicans whom he accused of inciting a deadly riot in New Orleans the previous summer. These statements hurt rather than helped Johnson. More Anti-Johnson Republicans were elected to Congress as a result, leading to his impeachment and near removal from office in 1868 (being acquitted by a lone vote of the 2/3 majority needed in the Senate).

How does Johnson’s impeachment compare with that of President Trump?

President Johnson should have been removed from office, but not for the reasons stated in the eleven articles of impeachment.

His high crimes and misdemeanors came because of his favorable treatment of Confederate white officers whom he pardoned in large numbers. This was clearly an abuse of power and fits the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors as defined above.

As a result of Johnson’s decisions, former slaves were badly mistreated in the South for the next one hundred years by loss of rights guaranteed them in the recently passed 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The two impeachment articles against Trump have been much more carefully and narrowly drawn than were the articles against Johnson. They were written with the full knowledge that the Republican majority in the Senate will acquit him, no matter what the charges.

Trump abused his power when he bullied the Ukrainian president in order to influence the 2020 election. He obstructed justice by refusing to allow witnesses to testify to Congress, and by refusing to release documents to Congressional investigators. In the process, Trump has tried to overturn the safeguards protected by checks and balances and separation of powers. These fit the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors as referenced above.

In the Trump impeachment the Republican majority in the Senate is enabling Trump to abuse his power. Their actions weaken our nation’s government and move us, if successful, toward dictatorship. It’s ironic, if you examine the Article X of Johnson’s impeachment, that Johnson was concerned that Congress would set up a dictatorship! It’s likely that most of Trump’s base is not really aware that their loyalty to President Trump puts our democracy in danger.

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