The opening line of the 1960s pop song “Wonderful World” should probably be America’s theme song. The words “Don’t know much about history” are unfortunately true for too many Americans. But President Donald Trump’s impeachment is pushing Americans to comprehend more about government and history.
The impeachment charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stems from his interactions with the Ukrainian government and has moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate. The House voted for articles of impeachment; the Senate will now have a trial on these charges. Trump is now the third American president to face formal impeachment charges.
Impeachment is the specific means to remove high-ranking elected officials from office. The Constitution states that “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This requires a majority vote of the House and a two-thirds vote in the Senate. To date, no impeachment process has changed a president’s ability to remain in office.
Impeachment resolutions are not new. In 1842, an impeachment resolution was brought against President John Tyler, unfamiliar to most Americans, but it was defeated. In 1860, hearings were held to impeach President James Buchanan, another forgotten president; nothing came of it. There were also limited efforts to impeach Presidents Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In 1868, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice president, was the first American president to be impeached. If Lincoln had not been assassinated, Johnson might have been just a footnote in history. While Lincoln worked for reconstruction and civil rights, Johnson held opposite views but wanted to avoid the South’s secession.
Johnson’s impeachable offense was violating a “tenure of office” law when he removed the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. The House voted to impeach Johnson, but the Senate acquitted him by one vote. After completing his term as president, he was elected to the Senate, a feat no other president has accomplished.
In 1974, President Nixon, who had won a massive majority in his re-election, was tied to a burglary at the Democratic Party’s headquarters. After Nixon fired high-ranking officials who would not support his denials of involvement, the House approved three articles of impeachment: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. With pressure from important Republicans, Nixon resigned before the House voted and therefore was not impeached.
In 1999, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment against President Clinton: perjury in regard to his sexual relationships, and obstruction of justice. Although the Senate had a Republican majority, Clinton was acquitted.
It is rare for the House to vote for impeachment, but the Senate has never voted to impeach a president. With the Senate’s Republican majority and this body’s history on impeachment voting, the current Senate trial will likely not end in Trump’s ouster. Yet no matter what Trump has done nor how successful he will be in the future, his name will always be linked with impeachment. This dramatic congressional action should push Americans to learn more about their government and history.