There have been three publicized instances of impeachment proceedings against sitting American presidents: those of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. While the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson and Clinton, the Senate failed to convict them; Nixon resigned before the House could vote on impeachment. While many people may be comfortable leaving these proceedings to history, the current president’s actions and today’s political atmosphere closely parallel these previous impeachments. United States citizens would do well to remember the lessons learned from those impeachments.
Articles of impeachment can be brought against any civil officer under three conditions: treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors. With these criteria in mind, the impeachments of Johnson, Clinton and Nixon can all be classified under high crimes and misdemeanors, with Nixon being the only president who objectively obstructed justice.
While there are objective, non-partisan reasons for Nixon’s resignation, both Johnson’s and Clinton’s impeachments occurred during a highly partisan time. Johnson was impeached during the Reconstruction Period immediately following the Civil War. The Confederacy had rejoined the Union, but their political ideologies did not coincide. During that time, Johnson regularly clashed with Congress in a cyclical pattern; they introduced a bill, he vetoed that bill and they overrode his veto. When the House voted to impeach, the Senate failed to convict him by 10 Republicans, signifying voting in both chambers was largely based along party lines.
While Johnson’s impeachment was mostly policy-based, Clinton’s related more to his personal conduct, which was subject to biases based on political parties. That’s not to say Clinton’s actions were not disgraceful; they absolutely were. However, during that time, the House was composed of 207 Democrats, 226 Republicans, and 2 independents; the Senate was composed of 45 Democrats and 45 Republicans. With a handful of exceptions, impeachment votes in both chambers of Congress fell along party lines.
The aforementioned events, combined with the conditions of impeachment under the Constitution, give a clearer understanding of the sociopolitical criteria necessary for this process. The politically polarized nature of current times echo the partisan nature of those prior impeachments. In addition to the polarized political environment, Donald Trump’s intention to obstruct justice, and his personal conduct under increasing scrutiny, the House has historical evidence to draft articles of impeachment. President Trump has pressured Ukraine to gain potentially damning information on a political opponent as well; one may call it bribery. Perjury, law-breaking and obstruction of justice have all historically been causes for impeachment, and failure to hold this administration accountable for its crimes would be, in and of itself, criminal.