Beware the 34th month of Trump’s presidency
Americans do not rush to impeach a president. Our three presidential impeachments proceeded against incumbents with at least 34 months in office — long enough to entrench serious doubts about their fitness. Scrambling to counter the current Ukraine-focused impeachment activity, President Trump is about to reach that dangerous milestone.
Articles of impeachment focus on specific allegations of abuse of power. The current House activity highlights the president’s apparent goading of foreign governments to provide dirt on political rivals; he even may have withheld legally required foreign aid to that end. Beyond specific incidents, though, the pattern of the Trump presidency could serve as an essential foundation for any impeachment.
After 34 months, presidential paths and styles are known and the benefit of any doubt is no longer extended. For Andrew Johnson, impeachment came after 34 months in office; for Richard Nixon, after 66 months; and for Bill Clinton, after 82 months.
The Bible teaches that “they that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” That likely will be true for Trump, as it was for his predecessors.
Within months after succeeding the slain Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Johnson’s hands-off approach to the South resulted in a restoration of the power structure that led the rebellion in 11 Confederate states. When congressional Republicans enacted laws to reconstruct Southern state governments, he vetoed the bills, dismissed Congress as illegitimate, expressed a willingness to see its leaders hanged and portrayed himself as a martyr, a Christlike figure.
Johnson’s extralegal dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton brought on his impeachment, but it was only the final scene of long saga of vituperation and conflict. After a trial in the Senate, he escaped removal from office by a single vote, but his historical reputation remains rock-bottom.
Nixon’s impeachment troubles came during his second term, despite a presidency that included admirable legislation and imaginative diplomacy. His obsessive need to pulverize his political opponents led him to use extralegal tactics against them, even deploying the FBI and the CIA. By the time the House Judiciary Committee approved three impeachment articles, the nation had long since tired of Nixon’s grim brand of political warfare. Republican congressional leaders advised him to resign rather than face certain conviction after a Senate trial.
Coming near the end of his second term, Clinton’s impeachment was unrelated to his official actions as president. His tawdry encounter with a young White House intern resonated because it echoed reports about philandering that long had dogged his career. His glib fencing over words in sworn testimony called to mind the hair-splitting that had earned him the nickname Slick Willie.
The two Clinton impeachment articles never came close to succeeding. Indeed, some Republican senators voted to acquit him. But the votes never would have been taken — certainly not near the end of his second term — but for earlier conduct that was not part of the impeachment.
That pattern bodes ill for Trump, whose vicious attacks, flip-flops and continual lies have worn raw the public’s patience. While fighting impeachment this week, he infuriated Republicans by betraying America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, evidently inviting Turkey to attack them. He has announced preposterously that he “fell in love” with North Korea’s murderous dictator, Kim Jong Un, and repeatedly has insulted our best and longest-term allies.
His lies defy the imagination. In mid-August, The Washington Post reported that he had made more than 12,000 false or misleading claims over the 928 days of his presidency, or nearly 13 per day (including Sundays and holidays) if you averaged them. Even if a chunk of that total involves inconsequential or arguable statements, the statistic captures the universal understanding that he often does not tell the truth. Should there be impeachment articles, their specific allegations will rest atop that record.
The 34th month of Donald Trump in the White House is nigh. The whirlwind may be right behind it.
David O. Stewart, a lawyer and historian, is the author of “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson,” and was principal defense counsel in the 1999 impeachment of District Judge Walter L. Nixon Jr. in Mississippi.
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