In impeachment inquiry, is President Trump more akin to Andrew Johnson or Bill Clinton?

In a Q&A, historian Mary Frances Berry compares the case against Trump to three other presidents who were threatened with removal.

Helicopter leaving the White House.

The formal opening of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump late last month has focused the nation’s attention on what happens next. 

The impeachment power, as outlined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, is straightforward but also vague: “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” 

Over the two centuries since the nation’s founding, just three other presidents have been seriously threatened with removal from office: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who were impeached by the House but acquitted in Senate trials, and Richard Nixon, who resigned as impeachment loomed. 

If Trump is next in line, what does history teach us? Penn Today asked Mary Frances Berry, a constitutional and legal historian, to discuss the historical parallels and what sets this moment apart. 

Mary Frances Berry
Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history and Africana studies. (Image: Jim Abbott)


Why were Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton targeted for impeachment? Which case is the most like Trump’s?

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson seems to me to be more like the current process. Andrew Johnson was impeached primarily because everybody who was in control in the House of Representatives, along with much of the public, was sick of him. You might argue that there are a lot of people who are sick of Trump, and it’s the same kind of analogy. 

But people were sick of Johnson because his policies—toward race relations in the country, and what should be done about slavery, and what should be done about black people’s rights—were not supported by the majority of his own party. 

Now, of course he was not elected, so that’s one difference between him and the other three people who were subject to impeachment.

Johnson infuriated the Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate because he wasn’t just opposed to their policies. He vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bills, which tried to give aid to those who had been enslaved. They passed a civil rights act to try and give blacks some rights, and he vetoed that too. And in both instances, he announced in the messages that he gave publicly and sent to the Congress that these were giving people preferential treatment. We’ve heard that phrase in politics today. 

Then, he also appointed a bunch of governors in the Southern states, and in many cases, he let politicians come back into office who had been Confederates and fought against the Union. All these things made the Republicans furious. 

They passed the Tenure of Office Act in order to entrap him legally, which said he could not replace the Secretary of War unless he got the approval of Congress, and he violated the act by hiring him anyway, and then they used that as a ground for impeachment. But they were simply disgusted with him and his politics. 

The House voted to impeach him without much difficulty, and when the Senate had to vote on whether to convict, he was saved primarily by a little group of moderate Republicans who didn’t want the Radical Republican senator who was in line to succeed Johnson, since there was no vice president to become president. 

The analogy between that and what is happening with Trump is that many people are tired of Trump and sick of him. But he was elected, of course, by the people. So, we’ll have to see whether he’s actually impeached now by the House. Though the Democrats have announced an impeachment inquiry, they have not yet scheduled a vote in the House of Representatives on whether to begin an official impeachment proceeding.

Nixon clearly obstructed justice when he tried to cover up the Watergate break-in. He would surely have been removed from office had he not resigned.

Clinton’s impeachment occurred because Republicans thought, mistakenly, that it would add votes to their House majority. Clinton knew he acted illegally when he covered up his extramarital sexual exploits. 

I like Clinton. I served as chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission when he was president, but he knows that he shouldn’t have had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, and lied about it. It was not like the Tenure of Office Act that was passed deliberately to ensnare Johnson.  

Clinton was saved because he had strong Congressional and public support. The Senate didn’t convict him, and he went on to get even higher approval ratings, and the Republicans for their trouble lost seats in the House. 

So far, no one has shown that Trump in fact violated a law, though there’s evidence of bad judgments. Now, we have to see whether this whistleblower complaint about the conversation with the Ukrainian president is the basis for an impeachment. 

Some Democrats, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have been reluctant to impeach Trump with the 2020 election so close at hand. Is impeachment a political solution, or a legal one, or some of each?

The framers of the Constitution understood it as a matter of law but also a political matter, in that it takes a political vote by the House and the Senate, who are all politicians, to make it happen. And the law, as we know, can be interpreted in so many ways. 

Some people might think something is impeachable and others might disagree. The concept of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ is also in the eye of the beholder. It is definitely a political process and I think the politicians have to calculate what would be the best outcome. 

You could argue that since the election is next year, that no matter how offended they are by Trump, and there’s a lot about him to be offended by, that they could just keep on campaigning and get him out of office by defeating him at the ballot box. 

Did past impeachments change the political landscape, or heighten the tension? Johnson in 1868, Nixon in 1974, Clinton in 1999—those were highly charged moments, just like today.

With the Johnson impeachment, even though the Republicans had political power and so they could go ahead and vote to impeach him, doing that to Johnson didn’t do anything to cool the poisonous atmosphere and the conflicting political opinions. In fact, we know from the history of the period that ex-Confederates joined the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. Their tempers were not cooled by going after Johnson—in fact you might argue that it added to add fuel to the fire. 

We do know as a matter of fact that it did not settle the question of what would happen to the South, and what would happen to black people. We’ve got the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, but we also got a lot of suffering for a lot of people, for a long time. 

So, while it might have cleared the air in Congress, and it might have felt good to slap him in the face and get rid of some of those tensions, it didn’t really solve the problems. 

Nixon’s impeachment and resignation paved the way for an election about honesty and propelled Jimmy Carter into the presidency. But as a one-term president beset by crises, Carter’s tenure was a sort of interregnum until Reagan was elected. 

Will an impeachment, if it happens, impact the 2020 election?

I think Democrats must worry about, or they should worry about, the impact this will have on their political candidates. In polls, the public seems to be interested in kitchen table issues—healthcare, the economy, those issues.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 reflected the feelings of some voters that their problems had long been ignored, and they wanted change. If they thought everything was fine, they wouldn’t have elected him, so if he is put out of office there is the possibility that the people who elected him might think their opportunity to get change has eluded them. The relief and elation of voters who want him gone might obscure their discontent.  

There’s no guarantee that if Trump is impeached suddenly sweetness and light will prevail and inequality, racism, and other problems will be alleviated. They were here before Trump and will continue after he’s gone. Impeachment could heighten polarization instead of reducing it.

Do you think Republicans in the Senate will vote to convict Trump if he’s impeached by the House?

I, like most observers, doubt whether the Senate would vote to convict. In a way, Republicans in the Senate would be stupid to vote to impeach. They’ve done a good job, from their perspective, with confirming judges, enacting a tax cut, and other ways that they control some of the policy levers. 

They don’t know, if you impeach Trump, how Pence will perform and how Trump’s base will react. So, I think it’s likely that they won’t unless the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming and the polls in their states, not national polls, show clear majority support for removing Trump from office. 

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History in the Departments of History and Africana Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.