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Posted on Jan 9, 2020

President Trump impeachment echoes history

By Rich Elfers, Columnist

High crime: “A crime of infamous nature contrary to public morality but not technically constituting a felony.” (Miriam Webster Dictionary)

Some Trump-supporting Republicans have argued that President Trump has not committed a felony. They may be right, but that’s not the issue according to the above definition. Only three presidents have been impeached (indicted/charged) in American history: Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Andrew Johnson. To give historical perspective and a contrast to the current situation, let’s examine the Andrew Johnson impeachment.
Andrew Johnson was a Democrat from Tennessee who was the only southern U.S. Senator to oppose southern secession. He was appointed military governor of the state after the beginning of the Civil War. He was chosen by the Republican Lincoln to be his vice presidential running mate in 1864 for political reasons—to help the President gain votes from those in border states that had not left the Union. Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.
Johnson was charged with 11 articles of impeachment, nine of which were over the firing of his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson correctly believed that Congress did not have the power to stop him from firing his Secretary of War. A 1926 Supreme Court decision proved him right when it threw out the Tenure of Office Act the basis for Johnson’s impeachment as unconstitutional.
In actuality, Johnson was impeached because he was a racist demagogue who tried to undo Republican Reconstruction. He pardoned most of the Confederate officers. This led to several southern state governments passing “black codes”, which kept southern blacks as slaves in all but name. Johnson once stated, “This is a country for white men, and as long as I am president, it will be a government for white men.”
Johnson also “attempt[ed] to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred and contempt and reproach[ed] the Congress”, according to the last two impeachment articles.
In 1866 Johnson had gone on a tour of some northern and central states. Republican-trained hecklers began to taunt him. He reacted badly. Johnson antagonized his audiences rather than gaining their support. More radical Republicans were elected to Congress as a result, leading to his impeachment and near removal from office in 1868 (being acquitted by a lone vote of the 2/3 majority needed in the Senate).
The leaders of the radical Republican Congress were far more clever, ruthless, and manipulative than the hapless President Johnson.
How do the two impeachments compare?
President Johnson should have been removed from office, but not for the reasons stated in the eleven articles of impeachment. His high crimes and misdemeanors came because of his favorable treatment of Confederate white officers whom he pardoned in large numbers. As a result, former slaves were badly mistreated in the South for the next one hundred years by loss of rights guaranteed them in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
President Trump’s two impeachment articles have been much more carefully and narrowly drawn. They were written with the full knowledge that the Republican majority in the Senate will acquit him, no matter what the charges.
Trump should be removed from office because he is dividing the country and encouraging racism and discrimination against minorities, among other issues. Johnson and Trump were/are both bigots, but Trump is using his racism to rally support while Johnson was just a product of his era.
This time the Republican majority in the Senate is not manipulating the President. Rather, it is enabling him to abuse his power and to influence the 2020 presidential election. The Republicans are manipulating Trump’s supporters. The mainly white fundamentalist Christians who support him want to maintain their power and if that means turning this nation into a dictatorship, so be it. No one likes to lose power.
In many ways, the Johnson and Trump impeachments are similar with race playing a big part in both. Hopefully, as Nell Irvin Painter (in the November/December 2019 “Foreign Affairs” article entitled, “What Is White America? The Identity Politics of the Majority”) so articulately puts it: “One can only hope that the increasing numbers of Americans will conclude that standing at the top of a racial hierarchy is not worth the loss of American democracy.”

Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor. He can be contacted at richelfers@gmail.com.