A History of Presidential Impeachments, and Why This One was Different from the Rest

Almost 153 years ago, on Feb. 24, 1868, President of the United States Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached. In the articles of impeachment adopted by the House of Representatives, Johnson was charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors,” specifically relating to his illegal dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

You see, Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited Stanton’s dismissal without the approval of the Senate. Congress and President Johnson, who was President Lincoln’s successor, frequently clashed over the future of post-Civil War reconstruction. They used the Tenure of Office Act as a tool to cement their political power within Johnson’s administration. When Johnson violated the law, Congress sprung into action and impeached him. At the end of his Senate trial, Johnson was acquitted by a margin of one vote.

The impeachment of a U.S. President would not occur again for almost 150 years. On Dec. 19, 1998, President Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached, again for the reason “high crimes and misdemeanors.” These charges stemmed from Clinton’s deposition under oath that he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern who the president did, in fact, have sexual relations with. A different sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Clinton by Paula Jones, an employee of the state of Arkansas while Clinton was governor, also played a role in the impeachment. Ultimately, Clinton was acquitted of all charges against him.

Twenty-one years after Clinton’s impeachment, President Donald Trump was impeached, this time for obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. These charges stemmed from a phone call Trump had with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky. During the phone call, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of his political rival Joe Biden, for corruption relating to his ties to a Ukrainian natural gas company. Later, it was found that authorized military aid to Ukraine had been ordered withheld shortly before the call without reason. Trump was recorded having responded “I would like you to do us a favor though…” after Zelensky requested further aid from Trump during the call. Once again, the incumbent was ultimately acquitted of the charges filed against him.

Now, only two years after the last presidential impeachment trial, we just went through another one. This time, however, the stakes were much, much higher. After losing the general election on Nov.3, 2020, President Trump continuously and knowingly advanced false allegations that voting fraud accounted for his defeat. These efforts culminated in an attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Insurrectionists breached the U.S. Capitol building, where legislators were in the middle of counting the electoral college votes from the presidential election. As demonstrated by videos presented during the opening arguments of the impeachment trial, the violent rioters were mere feet away from the escaping members of Congress. To be frank, it’s miraculous that every member managed to escape the Capitol physically unscathed.

New information detailing Trump’s refusal to call for National Guard reinforcements in the midst of the riot has come to light. According to U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), several White House aides said the president was “delighted” and even “excited” about his supporters breaking into the Capitol. Given the insurmountable amount of evidence against him, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that President Donald Trump committed treason on January 6, 2021. Despite this, congressional Republicans are more concerned about their own political future than they are about holding the president accountable.

Republicans are loath to face reality: the head of their party perpetrated a coup on the Temple of Democracy. Instead of confronting that fact, they continue to dodge and deflect efforts to hold Trump accountable to his actions. They know that doing so would effectively be political suicide, and could even result in harm being inflicted on themselves or their loved ones by far-right extremists.

America has reached a new low. The people we elected to uphold the Constitution and defend it against all enemies have instead chosen to stand by a man who will go down in history alongside the likes of Benedict Arnold, Robert E. Lee and Richard Nixon. They hide behind the flimsy argument that the president cannot be convicted once he is out of office, but know that historical precedent contradicts that claim.

And so, Donald Trump was acquitted once more, with a few Republican senators crossing party lines to vote in favor of his conviction. He will remain eligible to hold public office, and will likely run once more for President of the United States in 2024. In doing so, he will rip open the wounds he wrought on this country only a month ago, knowing perfectly well that he’ll have half of Congress wrapped around his finger. 

It is impossible to see what the future holds for our country, but I know that we will come to regret the coming inaction of the cowards that hold office on Capitol Hill. Unlike the impeachment of President Johnson, this trial is not politically motivated. Unlike the impeachment of President Clinton, this trial has nothing to do with poor morals. Unlike Trump’s previous impeachment, this trial was about a topic even more concerning than the solicitation of foreign involvement in our political process. On trial was more than a corrupt, narcisstic, idiotic man. On trial was our democratic process, our integrity and our respect for each other, regardless of our differences.

The saddest part? Not enough people seem to care.