Impeachment: Past, Present, Future


History has been made with the nation’s third presidential impeachment trial and the first of the 21st century. Donald Trump’s impeachment echoes the United States’ first impeachment. Trump’s impeachment proves that even 223 years later, collusion with foreign governments and defiance of congressional subpoenas remain pertinent in impeachment politics.

In 1787, William Blount was one of 39 Constitution signers. One decade later, he was impeached under the same protections he signed into existence. Blount, one of Tennessee’s first senators and a land speculator, was the first person to be impeached by the United States government. Over his short career, he amassed large swaths of land he believed to be profitable. Eventually, his claims totaled upwards of one million of acres. However, Blount was quickly losing money on his western landholdings rather than receiving a profit as he had hoped. At the time, it appeared France was poised to take over Spanish landholdings connecting the Blount’s purchases to the Mississippi River.

The connection between his western territories and the Mississippi River made the land easily accessible to merchants, which is why Blount had purchased the land. If France took the land, they could cut off access to the river, making the land useless.

As fears of France taking control over Spanish territory grew rampant, the prices of Blount’s landholdings depressed dramatically. Blount, now desperate and in debt, made a plan with the British government to attack and invade Spanish land claims on the Gulf Coast. If these plans were successful, the land would belong to Britain and Blount would serve as Governor of the British providence, as well as be able to pay off his massive debts. John Adams’ administration, by means of an unenthusiastic co-conspirator, discovered Blount’s “diabolical plot” according to Abigail Adams.

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Within a matter of months, the House of Representatives impeached Blount for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Senate expelled Blount from Congress with a 25 to 1 vote and set a trial to follow summer recess. However, Blount refused to attend his trial and instead served as Speaker of the Tennessee Senate during his trial. Ultimately, the Senate voted to dismiss impeachment through a convoluted argument constitutional scholars still debate the meaning of today. While no other members of Congress have face impeached since, Congress has impeached 15 federal judges, one Secretary of War and three presidents.

Calls for Donald Trump’s impeachment began the day after his 2017 presidential inauguration, at the Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. They then came to fruition on Aug. 12, 2019, when an anonymous whistleblower revealed that, among other things, Trump allegedly withheld aid from Ukraine in return for information on the Bidens. “The President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the complaint read.

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Eventually, impeachment was voted in the House of Representatives, and was decided along party lines. Every single Republican voting sided with Trump, and nearly every Democrat voted to impeach, following the trend of Trump’s divisive presidency. Impeachment and removal from office are different, and the majority-Republican Senate, which decides removal, was never expected to follow through. In fact, before the trial had even begun, enough Republicans had pledged to vote against removal from office that the ⅔ majority necessary would be impossible, despite the numerous opposite Democratic pledges. So, given the obvious partisanship of impeachment and removal, Utah Senator Mitt Romney’s decision to split from the rest of the party was an outstanding surprise.

He voted yes to conviction on Article 1, abuse of power, that Trump was unjustly using his presidential position to investigate the Bidens and influence US elections. “This has been the most difficult decision that I’ve ever had to make in my entire life,” he said to Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins. Motivated by his religious beliefs and desire to stand with traditional, pre-Trump Republican values, Romney has split from the party a few times, including not voting for Trump, in 2016 (he wrote his wife’s name in on the ballot, Romney said). On the flip side, however, the people at progressive protests that began the day after Trump’s inauguration seemed largely silent.

The majority of the movement to impeach Trump, which had been so loud for so long, didn’t rally to demand a fair Senate trial. Many activists saw impeachment as a lost cause, others were tired of protesting, and others weren’t looking to protest on behalf of Joe Biden, according to the Washingtonian. So the whole process, in high demand at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, ended sort of quietly. It has not made a significant impact on Trump’s support and left Democrats wondering; If not impeachment, what will derail Trump’s 2020 presidential run? The options are looking slim. 

The impeachment ended on Feb. 5 in an acquittal by the Senate. The process began in Dec. and resulted in Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. The President was impeached on two articles, one pertaining to high crimes and misdemeanors in relation to the Ukraine scandal, and the other concerning his obstruction of justice. At the end of the day, Donald Trump became the third president in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, none of whom were removed by the Senate in the subsequent trial.

Andrew Johnson faced 11 articles of impeachment, all of which were approved roughly along party lines. A majority of Senators voted to remove Johnson however the vote came up one Senator short of removal from office of 36. 35 Republicans voted to remove Johnson from office however 10 Republicans crossed party lines to keep Johnson as the President.

All nine of the Democrats voted to acquit Johnson on all counts. All of this stemmed from a dispute Johnson had with Congress over his removal of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, without the approval of Congress while Congress was on recess. This, along with a series of other alleged abuses of power led to the trial in which Johnson became the first president to ever become impeached. He narrowly avoided conviction because many senators feared that by impeaching Johnson, future presidents would fear the ability to disagree with Congress.

130 years later, another impeachment proceeding was held against President Bill Clinton. Two of the four articles against Clinton were narrowly passed, perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice, while the other two, perjury in another case and abuse of power, were dismissed by a larger margin. In the Senate, the two articles that were brought to trial were both dismissed by 50-50 and 45-55 votes respectively. Thus, Trump’s Senate trial followed the same historical patterns of impeachment trials.