The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Mueller report could end the Trump presidency without impeachment

Democrats should run on a message from 1860: You need a president you can trust.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III leaves Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown this month. (Al Drago/AP)

Democrats are wary of the political perils of impeachment, even as many have concluded that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report offers evidence that President Trump obstructed justice.

Their fears stem largely from memories of impeachment proceedings involving Bill Clinton in 1998, when Republicans ignored polling data that showed voters opposed impeachment and paid the price at the ballot box. They lost seats in the midterm elections, something that is exceedingly rare during a president’s second term, and Clinton’s popularity soared. Today, polling data once again shows the public opposed to impeachment, making Trump’s removal from office improbable. To Democrats, the peril is even greater because Trump is in his first term, and they don’t want to lose the 2020 presidential election because voters felt Trump was unfairly persecuted.

An 1860 congressional report on corruption under President James Buchanan offers a different lesson about the political power of investigating presidential wrongdoings. By uncovering corrupt White House acts, Buchanan’s congressional opponents dismantled his authority and paved the way for a member of their own party to win the presidency during the next election. In short, impeachment isn’t the only way to take down a presidency.

In 1856, Buchanan, a Democrat, won the presidency with 174 of 296 electoral college votes. While these returns suggest Buchanan captured victory comfortably, that was not the case. He carried only five non-slave-holding states, and even his home state of Pennsylvania was hotly contested.

Without Pennsylvania, Buchanan would not have gained enough electoral votes to win. Knowing this, state Democrats did what they could to get Buchanan into the White House, including using federal funds to finance their campaign. Although this bribery was not uncovered until four years later, suspicions of payoffs and fraud tainted Buchanan’s victory.

Over the next few years, his administration came under intense scrutiny as rumors of corruption and misdeeds echoed through the halls of the Capitol. In March 1860, a congressional committee made up of three Republicans and two Democrats began investigating “whether the President of the United States, or any other officer of the government, has, by money, patronage, or other improper means, sought to influence the action of Congress,” as well as “inquire into and investigate whether any officers of the government have, by combination or otherwise, prevented and defeated, or attempted to prevent or defeat, the execution of any law.”

Nicknamed the Covode Committee after its chairman, John Covode, it produced a detailed majority report that exposed the crimes of the Democratic Party and the president himself. The sheer volume of corruption uncovered was startling. Although there was not enough evidence to impeach Buchanan, the report exposed extensive corruption that took place during his presidency: bribery, the disfranchisement of some voters in federal elections, abuses of printing contracts, subsidies for partisan presses from public accounts. The list went on and on.

A lawless president trying to thwart Congressional oversight sets a dangerous precedent. (Video: The Washington Post)

The committee’s Democrats did not sign the majority report, but their own minority report did not rebut Republicans’ conclusions. Democratic Rep. James Robinson publicly agreed with the majority report even though he did not sign it.

The committee’s findings were released to the public in June 1860, just months before the presidential election, and proved to be incredibly damaging to the Democratic Party’s reputation, even though Buchanan was not running again. Its detailed accounts of the misdeeds of the Democratic administration, which circulated throughout the North, gave the Republican Party substantial evidence with which to persuade the public that the United States could not afford the continued reign of the “rotten and dishonest” Democratic politicians. In the ensuing campaign, Abraham Lincoln’s supporters in Michigan emphasized at a Republican Party meeting that “until the Democratic party are hurled from power, can all the cesspools of rottenness and corruption in which the public money has been sunk, be brought to light.” The Democrats could no longer be trusted to serve in the interests of the people, and the Covode report was evidence as to why.

So when the nation went to the polls during the contentious 1860 election, the results of which would eventually spark the Civil War, they had the Covode report on their minds. Even though the Republican Party had pledged to stop the extension of slavery — a policy that ensured Lincoln did not win a single Southern state — they also pledged to oust a corrupt Democratic Party.

That was the most the fledgling party had going for it in the North. As the North American and United States gazette suggested after the election, Lincoln dominated the Northern vote because Northerners had enough of “elections controlled by money extorted from Federal office-holders, unworthy partisans rewarded by jobs and contracts, [and] nepotism [that] spread through the departments.”

Many contemporaries believed the Covode report had an impact on the results of the election. According to one Democratic campaign manager, August Belmont, “the country at large had become disgusted with the misrule of Mr. Buchanan, and the corruption which disgraced his Administration” and the “Democratic party was made answerable for [Buchanan’s] misdeeds, and change was ardently desired by thousands of conservative men out of politics.” Even Southerners agreed. One slaver owner, Sidney George Fisher, argued that “the corruptions and excesses of the [Buchanan] administration were very influential in producing Republican victory.”

The Covode report has been lost in the history of the 1860 election, overshadowed by the slavery issue that split the Democratic Party and, months later, the nation itself. But we shouldn’t overlook the report or its historical significance.

Although Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and eliminate corruption in Washington, the Mueller report reveals that Trump did not make any attempt to purify politics. Instead, he further contaminated them. Therefore, Democrats can ask whether he can be trusted to serve in the interests of the people.

This is similar to the argument made by Republicans in 1860. They wielded the Covode report as clear evidence that the Democratic Party could not be trusted with power after years of corruption under Buchanan. If the Covode report could help ruin a presidency in 1860, the Mueller report might just do the same in 2020 — and lead to a Democratic victory.