Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson, and Impeachment

By Kaleena Fraga

Talk of impeaching Andrew Johnson began even before his ill-fated presidency.

When Johnson was first sworn in as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in 1865, he rewarded onlookers to a drunken tirade about his “Plebeian roots” and how he had triumphed over the ruling elite. Senators in attendance covered their faces with embarrassment–Lincoln’s former vice president, Hannibal Hamlin tugged at Johnson’s coattails in a vain attempt to get him to sit down, while the president looked on with an expression of “unutterable sorrow.” A group of Radical Republicans promptly drafted a resolution demanding that Johnson resign, or be impeached.

Johnson survived the demand. Lincoln came to his defense, saying, “It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again.”

A little over a month later, Lincoln was dead–the first president to be assassinated–launching Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, into the presidency just as the Civil War drew to a close.

Although Republicans in Congress had had high hopes for Johnson–after all, he remained loyal to the Union, even though he hailed from Tennessee–they quickly found that he did not intend to reform the South, but rather sought to reinforce old power structures. Johnson got to work choosing conservatives as state governors and issuing pardons to white southerners. He was lenient toward the Southern ruling class, and dismissive and hateful toward newly freed black Americans. “This is a country for white men,” he once declared, “and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” Before long, the relationship between the new president and Congress became contentious.

As racial violence flared in the South, the Republican Congress, increasingly distrustful of Johnson’s willingness to interfere, passed the Tenure of Office Act. The act was meant to protect members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, whom Johnson had retained when he took over the presidency. The law prohibited the president from removing any officials that had been confirmed by the Senate, without the Senate’s approval. It especially sought to protect the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who had close ties to Radical Republicans in Congress.

When Johnson tried to remove Stanton, Congress responded with articles of impeachment. Nine of the eleven articles related to the Tenure of Office Act–others related to Johnson’s “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States…to impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress…and to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress.”

Ultimately the Tenure of Office Act was unclear enough-after all, Stanton had been appointed and confirmed under Lincoln-that Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote.

What does Andrew Johnson have to do with Donald Trump? Aside from sharing several characteristics, recent actions by Congress could put Trump in the same position as Johnson, when Johnson faced impeachment charges.

In the wake of Trump’s decision to revoke security credentials from the former CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Mark Warner has announced his intention of introducing a bill that would bar the president from “arbitrarily revoking security clearances.” The amendment is unlikely to pass–at least as long as Republicans control Congress. Yet, if midterms bring a political shift to Washington D.C. it’s not implausible that such legislation would be revisited.

If that were the case, and if Trump continued to use the revocation of security clearances as a way to punish his critics, he would find himself in the same position as Andrew Johnson–breaking a law set by Congress meant to control him (not to mention Trump has the whole insulting Congress thing in the bag).

For now, at least, it’s a lot of ifs. Still, if Trump finds himself facing a hostile Congress, as Johnson did, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he would face a similar outcome.