Why impeachment of William Sulzer is solid precedent for Donald Trump

Why impeachment of William Sulzer is solid precedent for Donald Trump
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No American president has been impeached and removed from office, but several governors have, notably William Sulzer of New York in 1913. The proceedings are a roadmap for voting articles of impeachment against President TrumpDonald TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' MORE for obstruction of justice and campaign finance felonies.

In 1912, Sulzer won election as a Democratic candidate for New York governor. Unlike Trump, Sulzer was a progressive who backed minimum wage and factory safety laws and challenged party bosses by supporting nominations through direct primaries. But much like Trump, Sulzer was corrupt, deceitful, abusive, and autocratic. Just seven months into his term, the findings of a joint legislative committee, prompted the state assembly, which like the House of Representatives has constitutional authority over impeachment, to vote articles against the governor.

Under the New York constitution, the case moved to trial by state senators who were joined by 10 justices of the highest state court. Sulzer, however, filed a lawsuit alleging that the state assembly had voted for impeachment illegally during a special session, which was not called for that purpose. State judge Gilbert Hasbrouck bluntly rejected his claim, ruling that impeachment was a judicial function untouchable by the governor.


If followed by the federal courts today, this precedent would enable the House of Representatives, as part of an impeachment investigation, to obtain grand jury materials and enforce subpoenas over White House objections. “The power conferred upon the assembly to impeach the governor is a judicial power,” Hasbrouck wrote, which “cannot be participated in by the governor.” The “whole design of constitutional government would fall” and the people would have no “relief from oppression and wrong against those in exalted places if there was no independence or power in the assembly to make impeachments.”

By a two-thirds vote, the senators and justices convicted Sulzer of violating campaign finance laws by failing to report donations and expenditures. This supermajority imposed no time limit on impeachable offenses, especially when they contributed to the election of a candidate. Similarly, the evidence released by the Southern District of New York indicates that Trump did not legally report money spent to protect his campaign from charges by two women about affairs with him. The evidence implicates Trump in two federal campaign law felonies, for which in part his personal lawyer Michael Cohen is serving prison time.

The state court also found that Sulzer had obstructed the impeachment investigation and trial. One donor to his campaign testified that he had urged him to deny his unreported contribution. Another contributor, the eminent Henry Morgenthau, who was the United States ambassador to Turkey, testified that Sulzer had asked, “If you are going to testify, I hope you will be easy with me.” When Morgenthau demurred, he said that Sulzer told him to keep the contribution “between us as personal.”

Allan Ryan, son of the fabled magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan, who had contributed $10,000 to Sulzer, testified that the governor had urged him to ask Senator Elihu Root to intercede with political boss William Barnes to get Republican legislators to close down the impeachment proceedings. After he refused, Ryan said that Sulzer asked him to approach counsel De Lancy Nicoll to persuade Democratic boss Charles Murphy to get his loyalists on the impeachment court to declare the entire process illegal.

Former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE has clearly documented similar obstruction by Trump. Among numerous obstructive acts, Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller and, when McGahn refused, told him to lie about this directive. Trump asked his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end his recusal from the Russia investigation and direct it away from Trump and toward “future election interference only.”


Mueller found that Trump sought to influence possible witnesses in his investigation, including Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. There was “evidence that the president’s actions had the potential to influence Manafort’s decision whether to cooperate with the government.” Manafort breached his cooperation agreement by lying repeatedly to the special counsel.

Sulzer, much like Trump, blamed his troubles on political enemies and the press. He called his trial a “political lynching” and the “consummation of a deep laid political conspiracy.” He complained of negative press coverage that was “grossly exaggerated” and “prominently printed to prejudice my case.” Yet, both Republican and Democratic senators and nine of 10 justices voted to convict him on at least one article of impeachment.

Democrats in Congress should follow the Sulzer roadmap and give the campaign finance felonies that helped Trump win election in 2016 a prominent place in an impeachment inquiry. These violations, for which the evidence is readily available and unprotected by executive privilege, are high crimes that undermine the integrity of our elections. As state senator Herman Torborg said in explaining his vote to convict and remove Sulzer, “You can no more separate the campaign from the office than you can the sowing of the seed in the spring from the harvest in the fall.”

Allan Lichtman is an election forecaster and distinguished professor of history at American University. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Repeal the Second Amendment” and is on Twitter at @AllanLichtman.