Pastor’s Perspective – October 2019
A few observations concerning the possible Impeachment of President Trump.
This is now the third time in my life that a President has endured the threat of Impeachment. In the history of the United States of America (outside of the past 50 years) there was only one other time that Impeachment was raised and utilized against a sitting President. That President, Andrew Johnson, could well be considered an outlier concerning Impeachment, primarily because of the extreme circumstances of the time.
President Johnson was a Southern Democrat who rose to the Presidency when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the Civil War’s conclusion. The fact that Johnson was both a Democrat and from the South was seen as a reconciliatory move when Lincoln chose him as his running mate in the heat of the Civil War, but upon Lincoln’s assassination by a disgruntled Southern actor, Johnson’s presence as the leader of the Nation became a point of concern for those who sacrificed so much to preserve the Union.
President Johnson was Impeached when he sought to exercise Presidential power against the dictates of Congressional oversight in the firing of the Secretary of War. This was the historical reason for his Impeachment, but in reality he was Impeached in large part due to his active resistance to both the 14th Amendment (which gave full citizenship rights to freed slaves) and his tacit support of the “Black Codes” that had begun to make life unbearable for African-Americans in the post-bellum South. In essence Johnson was Impeached and nearly removed from office because he actively fought against the will of the American people who had elected Lincoln (a Republican and an advocate for the integration of African-Americans into the life of the Nation) to lead them through the dark days of Reconstruction.
President Johnson’s Impeachment still stands as the best example of why Impeachment is a part of our Republican system of governance. President Johnson seemed to betray the vision of a nation that had just fought a Civil War to free African Americans from slavery. It was no time to vacillate on the humanity and the civil rights of the newly freed slaves. Johnson’s actions were seen as a betrayal of the blood-soaked victories of the Civil War. When a President betrays the values and laws of the Nation then the President is a threat that must be removed.
Since that time many President’s have acted unconstitutionally. Many have acted against the will of the people. Some have wrongly imprisoned citizens due to their race and ethnic origins. Some have made alliances with villains or have taken part in inappropriate or even illegal military actions. Many have feathered their own beds and grown wealthy due to the largesse of less than honorable patrons. But for over one hundred years not a single President was removed from office or Impeached by the House of Representatives.
When President Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he took charge of nation reeling in the aftermath of the Kennedy and MLK assassinations and amidst an unpopular conflict in Vietnam that had forced President Lyndon Johnson to not seek re-election. Nixon won two elections by appealing to the ‘silent majority’ and standing in opposition to the very loud protests of a growing youth movement and the media class of the nation. Nixon proved to be an effective centrist Republican but after the 1972 election claims of corruption began to swirl around him, with a burglary at the Watergate offices of the Democratic party becoming the central accusation against him. Nixon resisted the full reporting of Presidential transcripts and stone-walled the investigation, prompting the Supreme Court to become involved and then force the President to release the information that had been requested by the Democratically controlled Congress.
Complicating the circumstances of the Nixonian crisis was the fact that it was occurring while his elected Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was embroiled in a corruption investigation that forced his to resign from office in 1973 (due to tax evasion and other related charges of corruption dating back to his days as Maryland Governor). The heat continued to rise on the President, until in 1974 President Nixon stepped down from his office before the House could officially vote on Articles of Impeachment against him. When President Gerald Ford took the oath of office it was the first (and only) time that an unelected President was sworn into office.
The unthinkable happened again in 1998. President William Clinton, a centrist Southern Democrat, was caught in a sex scandal that threatened his Presidency. President Clinton had battled against persistent accusations of marital infidelity since the days of his rise to National prominence in the 1992 Presidential campaign. He had been dealing with charges of sexual harassment since the early days of the Presidency, and like Nixon, had been fighting partisan opposition from the beginning of his Presidency.
Clinton’s Impeachment followed the Nixonian path as the charges were related to cover-up activities more than overt criminal behaviors. Clinton had angrily denounced accusation of an affair with Monica Lewinsky and had resisted testifying in the ongoing lawsuit concerning the sexual harassment of former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. Once again, the Supreme Court intervened to force the President to testify in the civil lawsuit raised against him. His obfuscations and lies were revealed when a blue dress containing DNA evidence that linked him to sexual activity caused the courts to find him guilty of perjury and suspend his license to practice law for ten years.
Historians will tell you that the result of the Impeachment of President Clinton was a party line victory for the President in the Senate, but the tawdry and ugly event had many stepchildren. It coarsened political dialogue, hardened partisanship, poisoned bipartisan cooperation and radicalized both political parties. Impeachment also paved the way for both candidates in the 2016 Presidential election. It created the narrative that allowed the First Lady to run first for the Senate and then become a plausible and expected Presidential candidate. When Hillary was positioned as the chief defender of the President, she became the new face of the Democratic resistance. Impeachment also arguably paved the way for an ethically challenged but economically successful man like Donald Trump to become a viable Presidential candidate. The constant drumbeat of Clinton supporters who alleged that sexual immorality no longer disqualified a person from the Presidential office certainly assisted candidate Trump when allegations of sexual improprieties were raised during the 2016 campaign.
We are still too early in the process to determine what the fruits of this Impeachment inquiry will be. The path of war, political or otherwise, is never a straight line. Whether this will be historically viewed as a partisan witch hunt or the actions of Constitutional purists seeking to pursue the facts for the sake of the Nation is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, there is evidence that we face a troubling future wrought by bi-partisan missteps and hubris befitting a Greek tragedy.
I am concerned that Impeachment has been transformed from a procedure akin to political surgery to one more in line with political assassination. Surgery is a necessary evil that is used to protect the health of the body; assassination simply destroys an enemy. While malfeasance should never be overlooked, the current crisis, as in previous Impeachment inquiries, seems to be driven by a belief in the ontological guilt of the President.
This ‘guilt before evidence’ path has been seen in the past and has given us a political atmosphere that encourages conspiracy theories (Bush was involved in the 911 attacks, Obama was a foreign-born Muslim, etc.) and removes any capacity to consider an innocuous explanation for a politically benign disagreement. This was understandable in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination, but it was completely avoidable over the past 50 years.
Transformation can only be achieved if we repent of our ill will towards our ideological enemies and seek to establish common goals and renewed benevolence between political parties. This change will demand a revival in the Church and a transformation of the body politic, but for us to survive as a nation in peace we must work toward renewal today. In an age of immoral leadership this will not be easy. Please join me in prayer for national revival and renewal.