The House should consider the president’s incendiary rhetoric as a separate offense, worthy of its own article of impeachment, as it was in 1868.
Over the weekend, in a rage over impeachment, President Trump accused Representative Adam Schiff of “treason,” promised “Big Consequences” for the whistle-blower who sounded the alarm about his phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and shared a warning — from a Baptist pastor in Dallas — that impeachment “will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
We’re already on to the next news cycle, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what happened with those tweets. The president was using the power and influence of his office to intimidate a witness and threaten a member of Congress with prosecution (of a crime still punishable by death), before raising the specter of large-scale political violence should lawmakers hold him responsible for his actions. If he had said this anywhere besides Twitter — in the Rose Garden or at a campaign stop — we would see it as a clear and unacceptable abuse of presidential rhetoric, his authoritarian instincts at work.
The House impeachment inquiry will almost certainly focus on Trump’s attempt to solicit foreign intervention in the 2020 election. If it goes beyond that, it might also include the president’s corruption and self-dealing. But in whichever direction the investigation goes, the House should consider Trump’s violent rhetoric as a separate offense, worthy of its own article of impeachment.There’s precedent for making transgressive presidential speech a “high crime or misdemeanor.” The 10th article of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868 was about his language and conduct over the course of his term. Two years earlier, Johnson had taken a tour of Northern cities to campaign against Radical Republicans in Congress and build support for his lenient policies toward the defeated South.
At first, it was a success, with large crowds cheering the president during events in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. But his fortunes turned in Cleveland, where the stubborn and taciturn Johnson unraveled in the face of hecklers. “The president was frequently interrupted by cheers, by hisses and by cries, apparently from those opposed to him in the crowd,” William Hudson, a reporter for The Cleveland Leader, wrote. When a heckler yelled, “Hang Jeff Davis!” — referring to the former leader of the Confederacy, then held at Fort Monroe in Virginia — Johnson replied, “Why don’t you hang him?” When another shouted, “Thad Stevens” — the chief Radical Republican in the House of Representatives — a now angry Johnson responded with “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” Phillips had been a leading abolitionist.
Johnson continued to speak, struggling to gain the upper hand with the crowd. By the end, however, the president was unhinged. “Come out where I can see you,” he said to one heckler. “If you ever shoot a man, you will do it in the dark and pull the trigger when no one else is by to see.” After witnessing this disastrous performance, an aide urged the president to consider the dignity of the office. Johnson was dismissive. “I don’t care about my dignity,” he reportedly said.
The tour didn’t improve. In St. Louis, as in Cleveland, hecklers yelled “New Orleans” in reference to a massacre that summer in which white Democrats, most of them ex-Confederates, attacked a large gathering of black Republican marchers, killing nearly 50 people. In response, Johnson said the “riot at New Orleans was substantially planned.” But he blamed Radical Republicans who, he said, encouraged the city’s “black population to arm themselves and prepare for the shedding of blood.” At this point, someone in the crowd called him a “traitor,” which — as Garry Boulard recounts in “The Swing Around the Circle: Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride That Destroyed a Presidency” — Johnson angrily denounced with one of the strangest tirades of the tour: “I have been traduced! I have been slandered. I have been maligned. I have been called Judas — Judas Iscariot and all of that.”
By the time it was over, Johnson had been humiliated and his reputation was in tatters. In The Atlantic Monthly, the essayist Edwin Percy Whipple summarized elite opinion of Johnson’s tour:
Never before did the first office in the gift of the people appear so poor an object of human ambition as when Andrew Johnson made it an eminence on which to exhibit inability to behave and incapacity to reason. His low cunning conspired with his devouring egoism to make him throw off all the restraints of official decorum, in the expectation that he would find duplicates of himself in the crowds he addressed and that mob diffused would heartily sympathize with Mob impersonated. Never was a blustering demagogue led by a distempered sense of self-importance into a more fatal error.
All of this would resurface in 1868, when the House adopted its 11 articles of impeachment against the president. Among them was a reference to his summer swing through the North — to the idea that Johnson had sullied the office of the presidency with dangerous, demagogic rhetoric. In its 10th article of impeachment, the House of Representatives accused Johnson of being “unmindful of the high duties of his office and the dignity and proprieties thereof.” His behavior, they argued, was an “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach the Congress of the United States” and to “impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress and the legislative power thereof.”Article 10 was divisive. Not necessarily because the Congress or its Republican majority had any love for Johnson, but because it raised difficult political and constitutional questions. How could anyone actually prove that Johnson meant to “impair and destroy” the regard of Congress? And while it’s true the president has unique duties, it’s also true that the president is entitled to the same freedom of speech that any other citizen has. His rhetoric was offensive, but was it impeachable?
Johnson’s opponents in the Senate opted not to test the case. They tried the president on just three articles of impeachment. And if not for the last-minute (and arguably self-interested) defection of Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, Johnson would have been cast from office, the first president to be impeached and removed.
This is all to say that Trump easily meets the Andrew Johnson standard for impeachable rhetoric. For nearly three years, he has used the presidency to stir anger and incite hatred. He has rallied crowds with racist demagogy and threatened opponents with violence from his supporters. “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people,” Trump said in an interview with Breitbart in March. “But they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” On Tuesday, he accused his Democratic opponents of orchestrating a coup.
If impeachment is about a pattern of behavior — if it’s about the sum total of a transgressive, unethical and unlawful presidency — then this rhetoric must be part of the final account. And it is a difficult case; we don’t want to criminalize speech. But presidential rhetoric isn’t just speech — it is a form of power, and like most of his other powers, Trump has been abusing it.
The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.
The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
- When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
- tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
- went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through... But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller. But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone... Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it... Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign... Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.
Historians have long looked to a few key criteria in evaluating the beginning of a president’s administration.
First and foremost, any new president should execute public duties with a commanding civility and poise befitting the nation’s chief executive, but without appearing aloof or haughty. As George Washington observed at the outset of his presidency in 1789, the president cannot in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.”
.. New presidents also try to avoid partisan and factional rancor, and endeavor to unite the country in a great common purpose.
They avoid even the slightest imputation of corruption, of course political but above all financial.
.. Over the decades, historians’ ratings of presidents have consistently consigned a dozen or so presidents to the bottom of the heap, including James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and, in recent evaluations, George W. Bush.
.. Yet the first years of these failed presidencies were not always so bad, and in nearly every case not as bad as Mr. Trump’s.
.. Warren G. Harding — darkly handsome, impeccably dressed and widely adored — acquired a reputation for cronyism, corruption and womanizing that continues to stain the reputation of his administration, which ended when he died of a heart attack in 1923. But while the corruption was very real, the worst of it, above all the Teapot Dome scandal, did not come to light until after his death.
.. Harding’s first year actually brought some auspicious legislative accomplishments, including passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which invested millions in the nation’s infant highway system.
In October, Harding addressed a huge segregated crowd in Birmingham, Ala., and courageously urged equal political rights for blacks, without which, he said, “our democracy is a lie.”
.. In public Harding was a paragon of dignity, and his death was universally mourned.
.. Richard M. Nixon’s first year in office produced mixed results. He continued the Vietnam War but floated reforms such as a guaranteed annual income for the poor. He hinted at retreating from civil rights laws and court rulings, but enforced them.
The year also yielded innovations like the National Environmental Policy Act, which Nixon signed into law in January 1970. The mixture of arrogance and paranoia that would lead to the Watergate scandal did not take hold until later.
.. George W. Bush has made some worst-presidents lists because of the disastrous Iraq war and the collapse of the economy under his watch. But his first year was notable for his post-Sept. 11 leadership, when he rallied the country’s spirit while cautioning Americans not to turn their grief and outrage into reprisals against Muslims. He ended his first year with an approval rating in the Gallup poll of 83 percent.
.. Only two of the failed presidents had horrendous first years, which, like Mr. Trump’s, were a result largely of their own actions. James Buchanan, a wealthy bachelor, at all times courteous and dignified, connived behind the scenes even before he was inaugurated to help coax the Supreme Court into the calamitous Dred Scott decision of 1857, handed down a few days after his swearing-in and widely considered among the court’s worst.
.. Calculated to suppress antislavery politics once and for all, the decision instead alarmed Northerners by allowing the expansion of slavery — and it helped set the nation on the political course that ended in civil war.
.. The financial panic of 1857 and subsequent depression, the splintering of the Union and the later exposure of rampant corruption inside the executive branch added to the sense of Buchanan’s fecklessness.
.. Andrew Johnson, a vituperative racist, was temperamentally and politically unsuited to succeed the slain Abraham Lincoln. His troubles began when he showed up for his swearing-in as vice president drunk and belligerent.
.. After becoming president through assassination, Johnson at first signaled he would take a hard line against the defeated rebels, but then switched to attacking civil rights for the former slaves, siding with the ex-Confederates and engaging in abusive tirades against the Radical Republicans in Congress. He closed his first year by vetoing the Civil Rights Bill, which would have given the former slaves citizenship. Both houses of Congress swiftly overrode the veto, setting in motion the events that would end with Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
.. Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office, and he has shown that this is exactly how he believes he should govern.
.. he is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
.. He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.”
He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment.
He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
.. If history is any guide — especially in light of the examples closest to his, of Buchanan and Andrew Johnson — Mr. Trump’s first year portends a very unhappy ending.