Just as the number of people who erroneously think that “the Great Wall of China is the only man made structure visible from the surface of the moon” has diminished from sheer repeated debunking, the number of people who mistakenly think that “impeachment is the same as removal from office” is similarly diminishing. To date, two United States presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1886, and William Jefferson Clinton in 1998-99. Both were impeached, that is, both were tried by the Senate after the House of Representatives drafted articles of impeachment. Both were acquitted. Clinton was acquitted by a comfortable margin. Johnson was acquitted by a heart-thumpingly close margin of a single vote shy of the requisite supermajority of two-thirds needed to convict.
The lesson the American polity took away from the Johnson impeachment was that a president of the United States should never be impeached for partisan reasons, that is, merely because members of the Congress don’t like his policies, his party or his politics. That lesson was forgotten by the time Bill Clinton inherited the presidency from the Reagan and Bush Republican dynasty. To be sure, Clinton didn’t help matters with his staggering stupidity, compliments of his teenage libido. But that’s another story.
The truth of the matter is, impeachment has always been a partisan effort with the single exception of the one that never happened, the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. It is the unanimous judgment of history that, had Nixon been impeached, he would have been convicted. At the time of his resignation only 15 Republican senators were committed to acquitting him. If anything that number would have decreased, not increased, had there been an actual trial and a vote in the Senate.
No one understands the conundrum of impeachment better than Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff. Both are aware that impeachment is a process one approaches with fearful reluctance, that it is more than just an option, it is and must always remain the last option after all others have been exhausted. To treat it otherwise would be to run the risk of institutionalizing impeachment as a partisan process, the natural course taken when a president of one party is elected where the congressional majority resides with the other. There is more at stake here than Trump, there is the legacy of precedence. Despite the irritation of many Americans, Pelosi and Schiff understand this and have treated it with the gravitas and reluctance posterity demands.
What is more, they understand that if Trump’s impeachment trial were to be held in the Senate today, Trump would almost certainly be acquitted. Nancy Pelosi has decided, and Adam Schiff has agreed, that they must nevertheless proceed with their Constitutional duty irrespective of the apparently foregone outcome. They are right to do so.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Republican appetite for injustice, corruption and pettiness, magnified in the person of Donald Trump and given wings by his misbegotten presidency, will not merely obscure but obliterate the example of forbearance and caution bequeathed to us by Pelosi and Schiff. Given the chance, the next time America has a Democratic president and a Republican Congress they will impeach that President, and they will justify it over the impeachment of Donald Trump and his “martyred” presidency, whether that impeachment succeeds or not.
There is really only one solution, that solution is to bring a final end to the Republican Party at the ballot box. It is a measure of how institutionally sick America has become when the causes of compassion, peace and care for the planet are viewed as “fringe” politics to be reviled and scoffed at, when slavish devotion to the interests of money-bloated corporations and special interest lobbies is perversely equated with a kind of manly independence spuriously linked to patriotism. This Frankenstein party, this ugly stitching together of the worst of human corruption, animated by money and power, instituted by the greasy hands of hypocrisy needs to go away forever if we are to survive as a Democracy, a nation and a species.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.