- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
It was nearly 80 years from Congress’ creation to the first impeachment of a president, Andrew Johnson in 1868, and 130 years more until the second, Bill Clinton in 1998, both of them Democrats impeached by Republican House majorities. That total — two impeachments in more than two centuries — doubled in just over a year with the 2019 and 2021 impeachments of Donald Trump by a Democratic-controlled House.
And now, only three years later, we have House Republicans hellbent on impeaching President Biden.
Yet to conclude that we’ve entered into a sorry new era of tit-for-tat impeachments — as some scholars and other observers have suggested since House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ordered up an impeachment “inquiry” last week — amounts to simplistic bothsides-ism. It’s wrong.
By such reasoning, Democrats and Republicans alike are engaged in a vengeful, self-perpetuating cycle of seeking to oust a president of the opposite party, even when it's clear the Senate won't vote for conviction. No, what we have here is one party, a radicalized Republican Party, playing tit for tat and thereby normalizing the Constitution’s most extreme check on the presidency.
And it takes its marching orders from the former president, who has gone so far as to make "retribution" a literal campaign promise. “Either IMPEACH the BUM, or fade into OBLIVION,” Trump harangued House Republicans last month in an anti-Biden post on his social media site. “THEY DID IT TO US!”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, no fan of Trump or of the House Republicans' extremism, nonetheless recently tried to justify their rogue behavior with a bit of I-told-you-so schadenfreude: “I said two years ago, when we had not one but two [Trump] impeachments, that once we go down this path it incentivizes the other side to do the same thing.” He scolded: “This is not good for the country.”
Indeed, it’s not. But the Biden impeachment inquiry is not the “same thing” at all as the House actions in 2019 and 2021.
Both of Trump’s impeachments were well-deserved, based on hard evidence of abuses of presidential power that fit well within the Constitution’s definition of impeachable offenses: “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
It’s hard to believe that the founders wouldn’t agree that their criteria encompassed a commander in chief who withheld military aid from an ally fearing invasion by a shared enemy — aid he’d signed into law after Congress approved it — to pressure the ally to investigate the president’s political rival: "I would like you to do us a favor.” And it’s all but certain that the founders would approve of sanctioning a president for "incitement of insurrection" to overturn a demonstrably fair election and remain in power.
Contrast those justifiable instances of Trump’s comeuppance with McCarthy and Co. opening an inquiry into Biden’s … what? They can’t tell you: The grounds for impeaching Biden are yet to be filled in. That’s what an inquiry is for, McCarthy says.
Yet the hapless Javerts in the House have been investigating Biden and his troubled son Hunter, seeking ever-elusive evidence that the president was enriched by his son’s influence-peddling, since even before the Republicans took control of the chamber in January. McCarthy’s announcement of an inquiry changed nothing about that long-running investigation. It merely allowed the speaker to say the word “impeachment” in hopes of appeasing the bloodthirsty MAGA minions.
The move appeased no one. Meanwhile, more sane House Republicans kvetched that the so-far-baseless crusade was interfering with the real business of Congress — like funding the government and avoiding a shutdown on Oct. 1. (At least the impeach-Biden obsession has distracted Republicans from their talk of impeaching others in his Cabinet, though Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene assured reporters recently, “You can fire more than one person at a time.”)
Let’s say the House Republicans eventually do unite in impeaching Biden. Even then, the Democrats’ record of recent decades offers no sign that they would seek revenge through impeachment when they next find themselves in power opposite a Republican president. To be sure, they might act on actual evidence again if Trump is reelected. He has virtually promised to abuse power in a second term.
Democrats are not political patsies, but even many Republicans will tell you that their foes have a responsibility gene when it comes to government: Democrats tend to want it to work reasonably well; impeachments and shutdowns upset the regular order. It is Republicans, increasingly over the last quarter-century, who’ve become the chaos agents.
Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi long resisted calls on her left to impeach Trump as he broke norms and bent laws one after another as president. “He’s just not worth it,” she said — until his blatant Ukraine shakedown and election conniving left her no choice. Similarly, when she and Democrats took power after 2006, she declared that impeaching President George W. Bush over the Iraq war was “off the table” — this despite Democrats’ lingering bitterness about Republicans' impeachment of Clinton over his cover-up of an affair.
Kevin McCarthy has none of his predecessor’s principles or leadership skills. In opening the investigation of the president, under pressure from Trump to weaken Biden for the 2024 election, he is doing exactly what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had the courage to refuse to do in 2019.
Pelosi, now a backbencher by choice, is just taking it all in, without pleasure. “For them to use [impeachment] in the frivolous way that they are is really a disservice to the country,” she said on MSNBC’s “The Sunday Show,” adding, “This is almost silly, except that it's so serious.”
Yes, it is serious. Only the Republicans are not. They alone are treating impeachment as if it were just another hammer in the political toolbox, cheapening its power now and for the foreseeable future.
Get the latest from Jackie Calmes
Commentary on politics and more from award-winning opinion columnist.
Sign me up.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.