Only twice before in our nation’s history has the U.S. House of Representatives impeached a president.
Students of American history know that Andrew Johnson was the first to face a trial in the Senate, where he avoided removal from office by a single vote in 1868. The second case, of course, is one many readers likely remember – Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial in 1998 and 1999, which resulted in his acquittal.
Richard Nixon, too, was on course for impeachment – and likely removal from office – before he opted to resign the presidency in 1974.
The historical rarity of impeachment proceedings speaks to their gravity. The prospect of removing a president from office carries enormous implications, and as such must only be considered in only the direst of circumstances – and in the most serious and deliberate manner.
The process, after all, is a political one, and it is vital that it be viewed as legitimate. That is particularly true at a time when polarization is high and faith in government – and in institutions generally – is at perhaps an all-time low.
This week, the House is set to launch the nation’s third presidential impeachment trial with a vote to forward charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice against President Donald Trump to the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee, on which Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline sits, last week approved the two articles of impeachment on a party-line vote.
Trump stands accused of pressuring the government of Ukraine to investigate Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden, his potential rival in next year’s election, and withholding military aid from the country as leverage. The impeachment articles further allege that the president has worked to obstruct congressional efforts to investigate his dealings.
It appears highly unlikely that the impending Senate trial will result in Trump’s removal from office. Republicans in both houses of Congress have almost unanimously stood behind the president during the current controversy over his dealings involving Ukraine. Further, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he is coordinating with the White House as plans are made for the trial.
We support the House Judiciary Committee’s decision to back the impeachment articles, as well as the impending vote by the full House to send the matter to a trial. We believe that the evidence thus far points to clear wrongdoing on the part of the president – conduct that the Judiciary Committee’s report asserts has jeopardized both the national security and the integrity of our elections process.
“By his actions,” the report reads, “President Trump has betrayed his office.”
We have long been wary of the president’s behavior and temperament, and we expressed as much in this space before his election. The years since have only made us more so, as the president has proven repeatedly that furthering his personal interests is his only true priority.
We understand that many Rhode Islanders – and Americans – think quite differently. As the position of congressional Republicans suggests, the impeachment proceedings have to date done nothing to build a bipartisan consensus. And with the next presidential election now less than a year away, even some of Trump’s critics have suggested the decision should be left in the hands of the American people.
But the nature of the president’s behavior, we believe, makes taking action imperative. Cicilline and his fellow member of our state’s delegation, U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, have expressed reaching a similar conclusion.
In a message to supporters following the committee-level vote, Cicilline wrote: “This was not a decision I came to lightly. But after hearing the evidence, the facts are beyond dispute. President Trump abused his office and undermined our national security, all with the goal of soliciting foreign interference in an American election in order to help his re-election … Donald Trump has given us no other choice than to move forward with impeachment.”
He added: “This is a sobering moment – after all, not one of us came to Congress to impeach a president. But in our country, no one is above the law, not even the president.”
In a statement announcing his support for the impeachment articles, Langevin said: “Today is a sad day for America. While impeaching a president is by no means good news for the nation, as elected officials we must uphold our oath to defend our Constitution and preserve our democracy.”
It is, indeed, a sad day for the country. It seems clear that, barring some new revelation, few if any minds are likely to be changed over the course of the Senate’s trial. If anything, existing divisions will likely deepen when all is said and done.
But the president must be held to account, and impeachment is the constitutionally prescribed tool through which to do so. In that sense, at least, we see the process working as our nation’s founders intended. That is meaningful.