When we consider the pending impeachment of Donald Trump, most of us want to compare it to the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
After all, the Clinton saga was interesting. It had all of the essential ingredients: “sex, lies and video tapes.” But it happened organically. Clinton lied under oath. He brought impeachment upon himself.
Others argue that the Trump experience is closer to that of Richard Nixon. But Nixon was caught on tape covering up a burglary. It did not require sex. He too brought misfortune upon himself, albeit platonically.
Hence, the focus on Nixon and Clinton are misplaced. They do not shed much light on Donald Trump’s plight. The game being played in Washington today is the strategy which impeached — but narrowly failed to remove — Andrew Johnson from the presidency.
On April 15, 1865, Republican Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Left in office was a “deep state” of political appointees who demanded harsh treatment for the defeated Confederacy. Vice President Andrew Johnson, a lifelong Democrat, was swiftly sworn-in to take Lincoln’s place. An entire political system was thereby thrown into turmoil.
To the politicians of the time, the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union, end slavery and solidify the rule of the Republican Party. Andrew Johnson was an anomaly who had no place in that “natural order of things.”
Unlike 1860, Lincoln did not run in 1864 as a Republican. He and Johnson formed the National Union Party. It was a ruse used to undercut the Democrats supporting Lincoln’s opponent. Johnson was a useful token to extract an electoral win in 1864, but he was never expected to have any real power. He was a former slave holder who Republicans viewed as morally unfit to be president.
So, the Republicans of 1865 treated Andrew Johnson the same way Democrats treat Donald Trump. They planned his impeachment soon after he took office.
In 1867, the House Judiciary Committee probed Johnson’s bank accounts and called the “deep state” to testify. The committee even tried to find collusion between Johnson and Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But, like today’s investigation of Donald Trump’s finances and like today’s charge of Donald Trump colluding with the “enemy,” the “witch hunt” found nothing.
However, Republicans had “an insurance policy.” It was called the Tenure of Office Act, passed over Johnson’s veto. It declared that a presidential cabinet member who was confirmed by the Senate could not be fired without the permission of the Senate. And when, without Senate approval, President Johnson fired Lincoln’s “deep state” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Johnson was impeached.
Like the Republicans of 1868, Democrats of 2019 at first tried and failed to tag the president as a traitor and then as a financial fraud. When that failed, they set an impeachment trap consisting of well-placed individuals within the national security apparatus. Any attempt to exercise proper presidential power like firing the Ukrainian ambassador or investigating the corrupt practices of Joe Biden were utilized as a pretense for impeachment. It was and is a reaction from the “deep state” trying to hold onto its power and influence.
Of course, Andrew Johnson was not removed by the Senate and neither will removal be faced by Donald Trump. Johnson, like Trump, was a casualty of a former power structure desperately trying to hold onto yesterday. Their joint experiences teach us that presidents who challenge the “deep state” can become targets of that state. And, when the entrenched power structure is challenged, it will access every weapon available to destroy its opponent.
Presidents Andrew Johnson and Donald Trump had the courage to oppose the “deep state.” In both cases, they survived and pressed on with their policies. Unfortunately, Johnson was so wounded, he was not re-nominated by either party for a second term. In 1868, the “deep state” survived by supporting the corrupt presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
Whether the “deep state” will survive in 2020 will be up to the voters. The next election will determine whether the Trump Presidency will just fade away like that of old soldier Andrew Johnson. Or, will the policies of Donald Trump triumph over an impeachment that, like Johnson’s, was planned by the “deep state” long before it happened? 2020 will determine if democracy is a “deep state” casualty.