There are always divided opinions about the president, but it’s difficult to argue that there has been a more contentious modern U.S. presidency than Donald Trump’s. One of the few presidents to have won the election while losing the popular vote, Trump’s election, time in office and personal Twitter account have all defied convention, and challenged the idea that a president should behave a certain way.
Multiple have painted him as either savior or villain; he became the first modern presidential candidate to refuse to concede the election or commit to a peaceful transfer of power; and on January 13, 2021, just a week before his term as 45th President of the United States was set to expire, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump—for a second time.
After Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, Donald Trump is only the third president to be impeached (Richard Nixon resigned before proceedings could take place). Those who remember Trump’s first impeachment just one year ago, or the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, may feel that impeachment is ineffectual. In both cases, the Senate declined to remove the president from office, and life went on.
However, the history of the United States would have been dramatically altered if either Senate trial had ended differently—and according to journalist and author John Nichols, impeachment is an invaluable tool built into our Constitution, by founders who knew all too well the dangers of being presided over by a king.
Below, read an excerpt from Nichols’ 2006 book, The Genius of Impeachment.
THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT
“No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice?”
—George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, addressing the Constitutional Convention of 1787
Toward the end of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a film written and produced against the backdrop of that remarkable period in the mid-1970s when the process of impeachment got far enough along to force the resignation of a sitting president who did not want to face the constitutionally mandated consequences of his actions, Allen’s character (Alvy Singer) is breaking up with his girlfriend (Annie). They are sorting through shared belongings when Annie spies a box of political buttons. “I guess these are all yours,” she says to Alvy. “Impeach, uh, Eisenhower . . . Impeach Nixon . . . Impeach Lyndon Johnson . . . Impeach Ronald Reagan.”
It was possible in 1977 to joke about impeachment because the country that had just finished the work of removing Richard Nixon and his minions from high office well understood the ancient tool and recognized it not as a political poison to be feared but rather as a healthy tonic, a cure for what ailed the American experiment. Even the major media of the country had gotten up off bended knee and acknowledged that presidents were not kings for four years, but rather servants of the people who could be held to account. Nixon’s argument that the executive enjoyed extraordinary authority—“If the president orders it, that makes it legal”—had been defeated in the court of public opinion by the advice and counsel of the founders.
Once again, the wisdom of James Madison prevailed, and with it the view that impeachment was an “indispensable” provision for defending the American endeavor—and the American people—“against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” The promise of another election, at which a wrongdoing executive might be removed, was not enough to provide such protection, as Madison had warned in his address to the Constitutional Convention that made provision for impeachment. “The limitation of the period of his service, was not a sufficient security,” explained the man who would, himself, serve two full terms as the new nation’s fourth president. “He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers . . . In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic.” Gouverneur Morris, the “gentleman revolutionary” whose pen Madison credited with providing “the finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution,” was even blunter than his compatriot. Speaking of “the necessity of impeachments,” Morris asserted that only the broad power to remove executive officers—not merely for corruption and incapacity but for the far more fluidly defined act of “treachery”—would provide the essential insurance across time: “This Magistrate is not the King . . . The people are the King.”
As the United States prepared to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of its revolt against Britain’s King George III and the evils of an inherited monarchy that could not be tamed by any act save revolution, the comfort level with the bluntest tool that the founders had provided for reigning in executive excess was high. The word “impeachment” was neither foreign nor arcane. On any newsstand in the summer of 1974, a full palette of national magazines featured covers with headlines such as “The Push to Impeach,” “The Fateful Vote on Impeachment,” and “TV Looks at Impeachment.” Playboy magazine asked gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson: “Are you saying you’d rather have been in the capital, covering the Senate Watergate hearings or the House Judiciary Committee debate on Nixon’s impeachment, than stoned on the beach in Mexico with a bunch of freaks?” The famously drug-inclined writer responded that, yes, he had turned down a chance to party in Zihuatanejo “on the finest flower tops to be had in all of Mexico” because he just had to get to Washington.
Impeachment had entered into the popular culture, earning mention everywhere from Annie Hall to Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoons and the cover of Mad magazine to comedy bits that joked about the introduction of a new ice cream flavor: “Impeach-mint.” When college students associated with the People’s Bicentennial Commission reenacted the Boston Tea Party by unfurling banners calling for the impeachment of “King Richard,” they declared that “The Spirit of ’76 Lives!” The idea that the founders had provided for the country a tool with which to battle the imperial impulses of presidents, and that it was not merely necessary but appropriate to use it, was perhaps best summed up by Texas representative Barbara Jordan, who was one of the many previously obscure members of Congress who became what Time magazine referred to as the “stars” of the Watergate moment.
A child of the segregated South who became the first African-American woman to represent the region in Congress, Jordan’s bold and brilliant pronouncements during the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment would lead to her selection in 1976, barely a decade after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, as the first African-American to deliver the keynote address at the national convention of a major American political party. It was Jordan who had released the nation’s founding document from the shackles of history and made it a tool of the moment. “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” argued Jordan in her June 25, 1974 opening statement to the committee that declared: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth-century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth-century paper shredder.”
The Genius of Impeachment
The founders designed impeachment as one of the checks against executive power. As John Nichols reveals in this fascinating look at impeachment’s hidden history, impeachment movements—in addition to congressional proceedings themselves—have played an important role in countering an out-of-control executive branch. The threat of impeachment has worked to temper presidential excesses and to reassert democratic values in times of national drift.
Featured photo via Mike Doherty / Unsplash: A protester holds a sign reading "A Republic... If You Can Keep It. - Benjamin Franklin". On December 17, 2019, San Francisco rallied in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's offices (she was in Washington at the time) in support of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, urging Senate Republicans to have meaningful hearings, and to put country over party.