A 145 year old case becomes a problem


Racism, corruption, abuse of power: impeachment is as old as the American constitution. There have been several affairs and scandals in 233 years. One could play the Democrats in the case against Trump in the cards.

Donald Trump has achieved something that no other US president has done: For the second time, impeachment proceedings have been started against him. He made history with the first one a year ago: only two presidents had to face such a procedure before him. An overview of the history of impeachment:

The concept of impeachment by parliament originated in England and was adopted from there by the founding fathers of the United States. The idea: A government member or official can be charged by the House of Representatives, the Senate decides in a court function on the future of the official. The first trial against a Senator from Tennessee began in 1789, about half of which resulted in the defendant being removed from his position.

“Treason, corruption or other serious crime or misconduct”

The reasons for impeachment are already laid down in the original US constitution of 1788: “High treason, corruption or other serious crimes or misconduct”. However, the interpretation of this formulation has been debated since it existed. To interpret the constitution, the so-called “Federalist Papers” are often consulted – anonymously published essays by some of the founding fathers, which were intended to convince the population of the draft constitution in 1787 and 1788. There impeachment is described as a method with which the behavior of persons in public positions can be examined who are suspected of having violated public trust.

Past impeachment proceedings have shown, however, that success or failure depends primarily on political will: As a rule, members of their own party also have to stand up against the accused. While a simple majority is sufficient in the House of Representatives, a two-thirds majority is required in the Senate for removal from office.

The first trial against a president

This was also made clear in the first impeachment proceedings that a president had to face: After the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Andrew Johnson, the previous vice president, became president of the USA. After the American Civil War, he pleaded for a more lenient approach to the southern states – Johnson was a well-known racist. He blocked a number of congressional bills on equality for former slaves, pardoned hundreds of Confederates and demanded the death of his opponents.

When he deposed the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was still appointed by Lincoln, who campaigned for civil rights for the liberated African Americans, and appointed a new minister without the Senate, the barrel overflowed.

Andrew Johnson: The 17th President of the United States was in office from 1865 to 1869. (Source: Design Pics / imago images)

In Congress he was officially charged with the Stanton Cause – but basically it was about his infiltration of the goal of racial equality. In the House of Representatives even a two-thirds majority came together, but in the Senate a single vote was missing for his removal from office.

Richard Nixon: Resign Before Impeachment

In 1974 there was almost a second impeachment case against a president: The Watergate affair was supposed to cost Richard Nixon the office. The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee had decided to bring charges against the President for eavesdropping on the Democrats. Everything was ready for the trial – but Nixon pre-empted the vote by resigning on August 9, 1974. His removal by the Senate had been considered almost certain at the time.

Clinton: Misconduct, but not serious

The second president to actually face impeachment proceedings was Bill Clinton in late 1998. His affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky became public in January 1998 and caused a scandal – especially since he initially vehemently denied a sexual relationship.

Bill Clinton in August 2020: The impeachment proceedings against him remained without consequences.  (Source: imago images / MediaPunch)Bill Clinton in August 2020: The impeachment proceedings against him remained without consequences. (Source: MediaPunch / imago images)

After Clinton repeated his denial in court, even though there was evidence of the affair, and he obviously lied to the judiciary, an impeachment process was started in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, however, there was no majority – the tenor here: Clinton’s behavior was incorrect, but does not correspond to the charge of “serious crimes or misconduct”.

Trump, Round one

The first trial against Donald Trump began in 2019. The trigger here: the Ukraine affair. Trump had urged Kiev to investigate the former US Vice President Joe Biden and his son, he wanted to obtain incriminating material against his future election challenger. The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives ruled that he had cheated the nation. In the Senate, however, the vote was almost faithful to the party, and there was no majority. The voters should decide on the future of Trump, it said at the time by the Republicans.

Now Donald Trump is voted out – and in all likelihood will still have to face a second impeachment procedure. The Senate vote, however, will likely not take place until January 20, after Biden is sworn in as the new president. Trump would no longer be in office while his impeachment is being decided.

Impeachment after the end of the term of office?

While this is unusual in the history of the United States, it is not unique: in 1876 the House of Representatives started a case against the Secretary of War William Belknap. He held office for almost eight years, and was known in Washington for his extravagant lifestyle and extravagant parties. However, as a minister he only earned $ 8,000 a year – even at that time, far too little for such a way of life. Then, in early 1876, the truth emerged: a House Committee had evidence of Belknap’s involvement in corruption and bribery.

William Belknap: Under President Ulysses Grant he was Minister of War from 1869 - until he resigned in tears in 1876.  (Source: imago images / Everett Collection)William Belknap: Under President Ulysses Grant he was Minister of War from 1869 – until he resigned in tears in 1876. (Source: Everett Collection / imago images)

The House of Representatives was due to vote on March 2, 1876 – a few minutes earlier, Belknap tearfully submitted his resignation to President Ulysses Grant. The House of Representatives still voted – unanimously for the impeachment of Belknap. The Senate then discussed how to deal with the procedure and came to the conclusion that it was also entitled to impeachment against former members of the government. However, there was no two-thirds majority and Belknap was not prosecuted.

For Donald Trump, however, the case could now become a problem: American constitutional lawyers are currently debating whether the current president can still fear consequences after the end of his term in office. William Belknap could set a precedent.

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