An Impeachment Flashback That May Haunt 2020 – "Sunday Political Brunch" November 17, 2019


MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – The public impeachment inquiry of President Trump began this week, and it will be fascinating to see how it proceeds. In the past several weeks I have written a lot about comparisons to the impeachment processes involving Presidents Nixon and Clinton, both of which were prominent in my lifetime and career. But that made me curious about comparisons to the first presidential impeachment, that of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Some of the similarities to today are stunning. Let’s “Brunch” on that this week:

“A Political Shotgun Marriage” – Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President of the United States. Elected in 1860 and having presided over the Civil War and the end of slavery, he faced a daunting reelection bid in 1864 to try to unify a fractured nation. So, Lincoln dumped his GOP Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and picked a Southern Democratic Senator Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, to join his National Union ticket. Despite being from the South, Johnson opposed secession and the Civil War. But he did not support allowing freed slaves to become citizens. So, he had some baggage. He was billed as a War Democrat, who supported the Union. It made him few friends.

“On the Fast Track” – Just six weeks after taking the oath as vice president, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson was elevated to President. Still, he was a Democrat, and many of Lincoln’s fellow Republicans in Congress had difficulty embracing the new boss. Plus, Johnson was at odds with several Lincoln policies, including opposition to the 14th Amendment. Many Republicans treated him with contempt and suspicion.

“Midterm Troubles” – Tell me if this sounds familiar? You have a controversial (and in some quarters a very untrusted president), whose first big political test was the midterm election in 1866. Johnson’s Democrat Party suffered huge losses in Congress in 1866. Republicans won many more seats, exceeding a better than two-thirds majority in the House and Senate – enough to override presidential vetoes. Many Democrats worried that such midterm losses could spread like cancer to the next election in which the president would be on the ballot. Sound familiar?

“Citizenship Versus Immigration” – Slavery, and the end of it, was the big issue in the mid-1860s. While President Lincoln supported allowing former slaves to immediately become U.S. citizens, his vice president didn’t like that plan. Fast forward to 2019, and you have a president strongly at odds with plans to allow immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally, to be put on a path to citizenship. In no way am I equating slavery with illegal immigration, except to say they were very divisive and controversial issues in their day. Both Trump and Johnson were cheered and vilified for their hard-liner stances.

“Election Year Impeachment” – As I have reported several times, Presidents Nixon and Clinton had already been elected to their second terms when impeachment proceedings began. But Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump have something very much in common. Their impeachment events occurred in, or on, the eve of their reelection year. That’s an insightful and fascinating difference. Johnson was brought up on 11 articles of impeachment and had his Senate trial in May of 1868, just three months before his party’s nominating convention. Johnson defeated attempts to remove him from office, and on several counts, it was by one single vote. Yet, he was so politically wounded he was defeated by his own party for renomination in July 1868.

“A Political Versus Legal Strategy” – There are those on the Democratic side who have already concluded President Trump violated the law with his actions concerning Ukraine. To them it’s clearly an impeachable offense. Then, there are other Democrats who are very concerned that their party cannot beat Trump in November 2020. So, one option is to impeach Trump – regardless of whether the Senate will remove him from office – and offer the voters a very politically damaged candidate, much like Andrew Johnson. And you have to wonder if some other Republican, i.e. John Kasich, will offer himself as a potential alternative nominee at the national convention next year. Yes, history might repeat itself.

“Cabinet Disunity” – Another thing to look at in comparing the Trump and Johnson impeachments, is the issue of cabinet dissention and disloyalty. Both administrations had a lot of it. Johnson quarreled with, and eventually fired, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was ultimately reinstated by the Senate. Johnson tried to install General Ulysses Grant to Stanton’s post. Grant ultimately was elected president in 1868, beating the candidate who torpedoed Johnson’s renomination. Watch to see if some other Republican candidates step forward in 2020.

“The First ‘Comeback Kid’” – Some politicians – and I think Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton exemplified this – are alike a “cat with nine lives.” So, whatever happened to Andrew Johnson after he was voted out of the White House? Well he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee in 1874, and to this day is one of only two former presidents elected to Congress after a White House defeat, (John Quincy Adams was the other). Johnson had served only five months in his new Senate term, when he died in July 1875.

Do you think President Trump should be impeached, or not? Click the comment button and let us know!

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, its five surrounding states and most of the Washington, D.C. media market. He is a National Contributing Political Writer for “The White House Patch” at

© 2019 Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: Library of Congress

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