Longtime Political Reporter Offers Perspective on Impeachment

By Chris Adams

Three in 50 years?

That’s what the country is facing in 2019, as Democrats in Congress begin an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. It’s the third such proceeding in the past 50 years – after just one in the previous 195.

In a session with Paul Miller fellows, political reporter and author Dan Balz (bio, Twitter, Amazon, Barnes and Noble) talked impeachment – from its history to current coverage plans.

The main lesson for journalists: “No impeachment is like previous impeachments,” he said.

The impeachment clause in the U.S. Constitution says a president can be impeached and removed from office for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” What that actually means – particularly the “high crimes and misdemeanors” part – is a bit fuzzy. And for the country’s first nine decades, it didn’t much matter.

Then in 1868, President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, was impeached for major policy and balance of power disagreements with congressional Republicans in the years after the Civil War. Although Johnson was impeached by the House, he survived in the Senate by one vote – so he was not kicked out of office. (Balz pointed fellows to “The Impeachers,” a recent book on the episode by Brenda Wineapple.)

Nearly 100 years would pass before President Richard Nixon was targeted for impeachment for obstruction of justice and other abuses of power. He resigned in 1974  before his likely removal from office.

Balz was a young reporter then, although he wasn’t covering impeachment himself. He did cover the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 that stemmed from that president’s lies about an affair with a young staffer. Clinton easily survived his trial in the Senate and so was not removed from office.

One difference between those two impeachments: “Nixon had lost the country. Bill Clinton had not lost the country,” Balz said.

Now, in late 2019, the impeachment of Trump is on the table. “I will not try to predict where this will go and end up,” Balz said. But like the previous impeachments, it will be an intensely political endeavor – not just a legal one.

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