Now that President Donald Trump is about to join the exclusive fraternity of impeached presidents, historical comparisons to his predecessors are coming. But, comparing Trump to the likes of Presidents Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon is lazy and does not fully capture the gravity and uniqueness of the history unfolding.
Of the two impeached presidents in United States history, neither were convicted in the Senate and removed from office. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, as multiple powerful Congressmen assured him removal from office was imminent.
Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor, is widely considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. His policy failures, including ending Reconstruction, his virulent racism and alcoholism aside, Johnson was ultimately impeached because he fired Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without Senate approval. The House of Representatives impeached Johnson under the new Tenure of Office Act, a law repealed 20 years later under questions of its constitutionality. Johnson escaped removal from office by a single senate vote.
Johnson was ultimately impeached for being a terrible president, not for a legitimate crime in office.
Clinton lied about a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern, and was impeached by a Republican-majority House led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and his promise to never compromise with Democrats. Clinton famously lied, but his offense, while not presidential, did not compromise national security or directly affect any democratic institutions. The Senate acquitted Clinton and he served the rest of his elected term.
Nixon’s potential impeachment was justified. Facing bipartisan pressure, he resigned to avoid removal from office. Watergate represented the closest the U.S. came to removing a president through the process created by the founders. Nixon’s offenses are the closest comparison to the current situation, as the president and his men unarguably committed high crimes and misdemeanors. But, even Nixon’s harshest critics cannot claim he compromised national security.
Overwhelming evidence suggests Trump has compromised national security, used the office of the presidency for personal gain, on top of more than 12,000 false or misleading claims as president, according to Washington Post fact-checkers. Although the House rightly began impeachment proceedings after a formal complaint regarding Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the House has a plethora of offenses to choose from, not just the headline grabbers.
But, Trump must be impeached in both houses of Congress. The Democratic-majority House will impeach him. The Republican-majority Senate will not convict him, either by dismissing articles of impeachment before the trial or voting them down during. The U.S. will not see President Mike Pence. Instead, President Johnson might get to move down a spot on the list of worst presidents.
An earlier version of this story implied Nixon was impeached. He resigned before proceedings could begin as he was told that impeachment was certain.