The landing of the Mueller report after the administration’s initial misdirection revived a debate about whether President Trump’s actions are impeachable.
But we don’t have to wonder. A president already has been impeached for something similar.
In 1868, the House impeached President Andrew Johnson because of his firing of Edwin Stanton as secretary of war and, at root, Johnson’s thwarting of Reconstruction. But Article X against Johnson (the Senate eventually acquitted him of all charges) seems written for the current moment:
Johnson, “unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof,” it said, sought “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” On several occasions, it added, Johnson declared “with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and did therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces” against Congress and U.S. laws “amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled.”
The article concluded that “said utterances, declarations, threats, and harangues . . . are peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate of the United States,” and have brought the presidency “into contempt, ridicule, and disgrace, to the great scandal of all good citizens.” Johnson was therefore guilty of a “high misdemeanor in office.”
Loud threats and bitter menaces in front of jeering crowds? Intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues?
This sort of “misdemeanor” — in the original meaning of misbehavior, not the modern sense of a minor crime — defines Trump’s presidency.
And Congress certainly isn’t the only target. Trump’s latest scandalous harangue aims at the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. A letter from the White House counsel, released Thursday, describes Mueller’s work as legally defective, a deliberate “departure” from the law, “political statements” made by people who were “political in the performance of their duties,” and perhaps “evidence of the [special counsel’s] refusal to follow applicable law.”
Lock him up! Lock him up!
Attorney General William Barr spent Wednesday attacking Mueller, a man he had called his “good friend,” reinforcing Trump’s disparagement of the special counsel as a “great HERO to the Radical Left Democrats” who led “the worst and most corrupt political Witch Hunt.” Trump called Mueller a “Trump hater” who participated in an attempted “coup” and produced “bullshit.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) concurred that the investigation was an attempted “coup.” GOP lawmakers just described Mueller to Politico as egotistical, duplicitous, partisan, “petty and peevish.”
That’s some reward for Mueller: Republican, former platoon commander in Vietnam, President George W. Bush’s choice to run the FBI and one of our most honorable public servants. He was scrupulous and fair (the administration is now attacking him for failing to decide on whether Trump should be charged, even though Justice Department rules say a sitting president can’t be charged), and his report was easier on Trump than many expected.
But though Mueller didn’t allege that Trump committed a crime, he detailed at great length the style of “misdemeanor” described in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment.
When the framers used the phrase “crimes and misdemeanors,” borrowed from English law, they weren’t using misdemeanors in the sense of trespassing, or other crimes below felonies. They were talking about bad behavior; impeachment, James Madison wrote, was protection against a president’s “incapacity, negligence, or perfidy.”
The framers assumed a president would be upstanding. Federalist Paper No. 68 says future presidents would likely be “characters preeminent for ability and virtue,” reasoning that the electoral process would eliminate those who had only “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”
Alexander Hamilton never met Donald Trump.
Many have fallen into scandalous harangues lately. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) brought a bucket of fried chicken to a hearing to illustrate that Barr is a “chicken.” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told Barr he’s working “for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Barr a liar and unilaterally accused him of “a crime.”
But as our forebears wrote in 1868, such behavior is “peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate.” Trump’s indecency is commonplace. At a National Day of Prayer service Thursday, just after talking about how “we proudly come together as one nation,” he spoke of God helping him survive “witch hunts.” He has in recent days called Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential front-runner, “Sleepy Joe” and “not very bright.” Add to that a recent Twitter stream of invective about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the “dues sucking” firefighters’ union, Democrats with “sick and demented ideas” — and, of course, a “Deep State coup effort,” “collusion delusion” and the Mueller “witch hunt.”
Set aside for now questions of obstruction of justice and election help from Russia. The calumny and slander Trump is directing at Mueller, one of the best in American public life, is the very definition of misdemeanor.