The Humanities Department Symposium Series consists of two annual programs: When East Meets West and American Crossroads.
Impeachment: Its Past and Prospects
The third annual American Crossroads Symposium considers the historical impact of presidential impeachments. The current news cycle is dominated by the presence of President Donald Trump and the specter of his impeachment. It is clear that the framers of the Constitution intended that mediocre presidents would be rejected by elections but that criminal presidents, particularly those compromised by foreign agents, would more urgently be removed from office by the painful and politically divisive process of impeachment.
Friday, February 28, 2020
8:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Columbus State Conference Center (WD)
315 Cleveland Ave., 4th Floor
GENERAL ADMISSION IS $10
Only registrants with an .edu email address will be able to attend for free.
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In early March 1868, the House of Representatives voted 11 articles of impeachment, accusing President Andrew Johnson of illegally removing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office, illegally appointing an ad interim successor, seeking to bring the Congress of the United States into contempt before the people of the United States, and in the final article placing the removal of Stanton in the context of general obstruction of the laws. This set the stage for the first Senate trial for the conviction and removal of a U.S. president for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” House Republicans had believed Johnson had abused his presidential powers to return former Confederates to political power, to obstruct efforts to secure and protect the rights of Unionists and black southerners, and to prevent Congress from carrying out a program of reconstruction that would secure a safe restoration of the Union. Having failed to impeach him on broader grounds, Johnson’s opponents seized on his apparent violation of the 1867 Tenure of Office Act when he removed Stanton. Johnson was acquitted by one vote. The episode reflects the difficulties inherent in impeachment, difficulties that are apparent today.
The Two years after fringe figures of Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign for reelection broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Complex, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee formally approved three articles of impeachment against the president in late July 1974. The charges were 1) obstruction of justice for Nixon’s role in covering up the Watergate break-in, 2) abuse of power for violating the constitutional rights of political enemies by unleashing the IRS on them, among other things, and 3) contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with its subpoenas. With mounting bipartisan pressure and new evidence, particularly the release of the transcripts of the “smoking gun” tape showing Nixon’s complicity in covering up the Watergate burglary, the president at last resigned the office by early August, before the House could convene to vote for almost certain impeachment. Even though Nixon was not formally impeached, beginning the process led to the only presidential departure from office (so far).
The second formal impeachment of a president stemmed from Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s investigations, initially, of the president and first lady’s finances in an Arkansas land deal, and, then, the president’s sexual affairs, following the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. In his testimony in the Jones case, Bill Clinton denied having sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which turned out to be false statements under oath. Subsequent efforts to hide evidence and to persuade witnesses to remain silent, once discovered, added fuel to the growing scandal. In December 1998, the House voted to impeach Clinton on two articles: perjury and obstruction of justice. Yet, again, an impeached president survived the Senate trial and the high bar for conviction and removal. Clinton’s approval ratings actually rose during the process and his political party gained seats in the 1998 midterm election, but his likely successor, Vice President Al Gore, failed to win the 2000 presidential election. This conundrum has led political pundits to debate the political price and legacy of impeachment for both an embattled president and the opposition political party driving impeachment.
Donald Trump’s impeachment on December 19, 2019, centered on Trump’s efforts to stymie congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine until its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would agree to announce an investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter and to spread a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia was behind 2016 election interference in the U.S. Trump has publicly characterized Biden as his toughest competition in the field of potential Democratic presidential nominees. House Democrats insisted that leveraging foreign aid in exchange for casting investigative suspicion on a political rival shows a president putting his personal ambitions ahead of national security, which continued a pattern of inviting foreign election meddling already investigated by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. Impeachment articles charged abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for White House refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas (as in the Nixon case). Professor Shane will discuss the constitutional significance of these articles and why legal scholars are nearly unanimous in insisting that impeachable offenses need not be violations of criminal law.