Our Sages taught (Yoma 22b) that no person should be appointed a leader of the community unless he has skeletons in his closet (literally, “a basket of reptiles behind him”). It helps keep him grounded and humble, especially as “there is no person so righteous who does only good and never sins” (Kohelet 7:20). Of course, what is traditional in Jewish life is apparently anathema in Washington, where the political circus has continued for three years with no end in sight.
Impeachment is a political process that is rooted in sufficient misdeeds in both quantity and quality that the office-holder has lost the confidence of the co-equal ruling class, but more importantly, the people. The Constitution is suitably ambiguous on the subject, authorizing impeachment for the straightforward crimes of “treason and bribery” but also the malleable “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The last clause is odd, given the wide range of “misdemeanors” that include things that are frivolous. But an analysis of American impeachment history, as sparse as it has been, and fortunately so, is instructive.
Andrew Johnson, the hated successor to the beloved but assassinated Abraham Lincoln, was impeached on purely political grounds. He was known as a racist and a drunk, was hesitant to extend equal rights to the former black slaves and eager to allow the full re-admission of Southern states to the Union with a minimal conditions. This antagonized his Republican Party who sought to bypass and then weaken him. They had a handy remedy when Congress had passed a law, the Tenure in Office Act, solely to limit his presidential powers. It required Congressional approval for the removal of any federal official, such as a Cabinet Secretary, whose tenure in office had originally been approved by Congress. Johnson held that such an act was an unconstitutional limitation on presidential prerogatives undertaken by a Congress that despised him. His veto was overturned. (By way of analogy, Congressional enactment of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 was a direct assault on the despised President Nixon, who, like all of his successors, have deemed that Act also unconstitutional.)
When Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and nominated Ulysses S. Grant as his replacement – doing it intentionally to test the constitutionality of the act – he fell into the trap Congress laid for him, and he was impeached, which is tantamount to an indictment. It was a blatantly political and personal rebuke, as his impeachment trial took place in 1868, an election year, in which Johnson was never going to be nominated by the Republicans for a full term as president. (It is worthy to note – and quite apropos to current events – that this was the second time the House had taken up impeachment charges against Johnson. The first was in 1867 on some other pretext, but that vote failed).
Andrew Johnson was spared conviction in the Senate by one vote, the Senate then adjourned, and General Grant was nominated by the Republicans as their presidential candidate in 1868. Several months later he was elected president. It was nasty politics through and through.
By contrast, Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice was political in process but substantively based on the commission of crimes unrelated to the conduct of his presidency. Free people will always differ on whether impeachment under such circumstances is warranted. For sure, Republicans saw a partisan opportunity but since sitting presidents cannot be indicted, the open question was how should Congress deal with a president who has committed crimes while in office? As he cannot be indicted, tried, and punished if guilty, the only two options are impeachment or disregard of those crimes. In context, the former was a reasonable if unsuccessful endeavor weakened by the widespread perception that Clinton’s lies to conceal his marital infidelities was something to which the common person could relate. In a totally partisan vote, he was acquitted by the Senate and served out the remainder of his term with enhanced popularity but the ignominy of being the only president ever impeached for crimes committed while in office.
If Johnson’s impeachment was politically-motivated and Clinton’s impeachment driven by criminal behavior, it is clear that Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment was spurred by both raw politics and criminal conduct. To be sure, he suffered under Congresses that were heavily Democratic, and which had loathed him since the late 1940’s. And while it is also true that his crimes were obvious – covering up the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters (hmmm… were the Russians involved?), unleashing the IRS and other government agencies on his political opponents, etc. – it is undeniable that there were few things that Nixon did that had not been done by JFK and LBJ before him. Indeed, using the IRS to harass political enemies was something that occurred routinely in the Obama administration. Nixon wasn’t impeached – he resigned to avoid bi-partisan impeachment and likely conviction in the Senate – and his departure from office engendered a house cleaning in American politics.
Where does Donald Trump fit into this paradigm? Well, since the first bill to impeach Trump was filed the day he took office, it is obvious that the motivations are primarily, if not exclusively, political. Representative Al Green, among others, has filed multiple bills of impeachment in the last several years, and his other contribution to American politics is this recent quote that will live forever. Asked this past May whether he was afraid the impeachment “talk will help the president’s re-election,” he responded that “I am concerned that if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.” As in, why leave it up to the people? But he seemed unaware that impeachment and removal from office are two separate acts, and the former without the latter is futile, except as a political sword.
Has the President committed crimes? That is a debatable issue, but despite the heated rhetoric, the simple answer is no. Screaming that crimes have been committed does not make it so. The relentless investigations and the breathless exposes have amount to nothing. From the Russian collusion hoax to the campaign finance “violations,” from the fishing expeditions involving Trump’s tax returns to the current Ukrainian imbroglio, the irrational investigation obsession has paralyzed the country and made it an international laughing stock.
Of course, Trump has been ill-served in a number of ways, particularly his penchant for being his own press secretary while failing to communicate his points coherently and defend his interests and actions cogently. Is it a crime to ask Ukraine’s president to investigate possible Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election? It is bizarre to think so, considering the Democrat’s fixation on foreign entities stealing the 2016 election. Note, indeed, that the Biden matter was the last raised by Trump, and only after President Zelensky indicated there were a number of investigations already taking place.
Furthermore, the claim that he asked a foreign leader to “dig up dirt” on a political rival is an admitted fabrication; no such language was ever used by Trump. “Digging up dirt” suggests revealing the existence of a secret girlfriend in Kiev. That is wholly different from investigating pay-to-play schemes involving high-ranking government officials and their families. Wouldn’t it be of interest to the electorate – and possibly illegal – if an American president was profiting from policies he espoused that related to a foreign government? Wasn’t there frenzied reportage – and prosecutions for perjury – over the possibility that Candidate Trump might have been negotiating to build a hotel in Moscow and had therefore sold his soul to Putin? In reality, Trump did not profit at all from any Russian connections. In reality, the Biden’s profited handsomely from their Ukrainian connections. So why is the former worthy of apoplectic, overblown and tendentious media coverage – and the latter blithely dismissed by that same media as “nothing wrong”? The answer speaks for itself.
Is it inherently unreasonable to ask a foreign government to investigate possible corruption or influence –peddling by an American, especially by a former American Vice-President? Only if one feels that being a presidential candidate should serve as a shield against any corruption investigation, a bizarre stance in its own right but downright hypocritical when one considers the treatment of Candidate Trump. The phony piety of crying over delayed funding for the Ukrainian military is especially rich coming from Democrats who withheld any support for Ukraine when they really needed it – when Russia conquered Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine during the Obama years. And the notion that a request for such assistance is a campaign violation is laughable, asserted by people who do not know or care about the law and are nothing but hostile polemicists. The mania over a quid pro quo assumes that somehow Ukraine was entitled to American taxpayer money. And when GHW Bush and James Baker withheld loan guarantees from Israel in the early 1990’s after they had been approved by Congress in order to force compliance with American diplomatic policies and anti-settlement preferences, was that not also a quid pro quo, and isn’t that how politics, local and foreign, is played? It is a charade.
Two things seem apparent, even if they gone unremarked upon: it is obvious that the Democrats do not want to formally initiate impeachment hearings because that would give the Republicans the right to issue subpoenas and call witnesses to testify. Witnesses such as Hunter Biden, who could be asked: “How much were you paid to serve on the Burisma board? What is your experience in the energy field? What did you contribute during the time you served on that board? What did you do to earn the money? Did you ever discuss Burisma business with your father or with any Obama administration official?”
Witnesses such as Joe Biden, who could be asked: “You never discussed business with your son? Never? Why did you fly him on Air Force Two with you to China? Did you not ask him how his Chinese meetings went? Are you aware of how he supports himself? Do you have other relatives who have joined corporate boards eager for access to you?”
Add that to the uninvestigated scam of the hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign money pocketed by the Clinton Foundation – now apparently defunct – and it is no wonder the Democrats want to avoid public hearings.
Secondly, the direct appeal to Zelensky, and the employment of the peripatetic Rudy Giuliani, seems intended to bypass the FBI and CIA – both of whom are not trusted by Trump for the simple reason that elements of both have been trying to undermine him since even before he took office – indeed, even before he was elected. If I were Trump, I would not trust them – and the latest proof is the unconscionable act of publicly disclosing private presidential phone calls to world leaders under the false guise of whistle-blowing but just another attempt to undermine his presidency. It is unimaginable that such treachery could occur and be tolerated, much less celebrated, under any other president.
President Trump would be wise to establish a completely separate and discreet means of communication because he literally cannot trust the intelligence agencies. That is the real scandal that needs to be exposed and prosecuted – or these shenanigans will continue under future presidents whose bureaucrats oppose his policies – and all to the detriment of the country.
And this: Trump’s disruption of the traditional order of politics in America has engendered these endless investigations. And they will be endless: if he is impeached in the coming months, he will be acquitted. If he is re-elected and the Democrats retain the House, he will be impeached again for something or other in 2022 or 2023.
Sometimes, the “basket of reptiles” comes in human form. The circus has come to town, and it is not going anywhere.