Crime and Presidents

Trump doesn’t have to be impeached to be finished.

A political cartoon of Henry Clay sewing Andrew Jackson’s mouth shut, 1828. Source: Tennessee Public Radio

What exactly does it take for a president to be impeached? This question has perplexed legal scholars and outside observers since the country’s beginning. The historian C. Vann Woodward, who reported to Congress in 1974 on the subject of presidential responses to accusations of misconduct, concluded that “none of the previous presidents save [William Henry Harrison], who died after only a month in office, entirely escaped charges of some sort of misconduct or corruption.” Even the nation’s greatest presidents could not escape allegations of criminal behavior. George Washington spent the latter part of his presidency, especially after the divisive passage of Jay’s Treaty, “subject almost daily to charges that he was bent on betraying the country he loved,” according to historian Lance Banning.¹

As the country waits with bated breath on the results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, the question has emerged once again. The news that Trump attempted to fire Mueller last June has only amplified suspicion that the president either colluded personally with Russia or tried to obstruct investigation of his campaign’s collusion. An attempt to fire Mueller for obviously flimsy reasons points to possible corrupt intent in the earlier firing that Trump did go through with: that of FBI director James Comey.

However, these suspicions have not convinced everyone that impeachment is a foregone conclusion. Andrew Prokop of Vox and Paul Rosenzweig in The Atlantic have argued that the Mueller investigation may end up being unable to result in impeachment. “Trump Is Here to Stay,” blared a recent New Republic headline on the probe. No matter how conclusive Mueller’s evidence is, argue these writers, impeachment is still inherently a political crime that can only be prosecuted by Congress, and Republicans seem unwilling to take the steps (and the votes) needed for impeachment and conviction.

But does that make the Mueller probe worthless for the president’s critics? What damage can the probe still do if its work does not lead to impeachment? And should the president’s allies be worried regardless? The history of presidential misconduct shows that, even if evidence of crime does not lead to impeachment, voters have often reacted strongly against presidents who are seen to be criminals.

It is true that no president in American history has been both impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. But criminal wrongdoing and substantial allegations of criminal wrongdoing have doomed many presidencies and political parties over the centuries. Perhaps the first presidential election influenced in this way was that of 1828. Andrew Jackson charged that the incumbent, John Quincy Adams, had only won the election of 1824 by engaging in a conspiracy with then-Speaker of the House, Henry Clay. Adams’ “Corrupt Bargain” became a centerpiece of Jackson’s eventually victorious campaign. In a 2005 article in the American Journal of Political Science, Jamie Carson and Erik Engstrom argued that Adams’ alleged misconduct helped decide the midterm elections of 1826 as well, with congressmen who voted for Adams in the House being placed on publicly disseminated “black lists.” Carson and Engstrom characterized the election as the first in American history in which the president experienced a “midterm decline” halfway through his first term.

Although it did not lead to conviction, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment of Andrew Johnson doomed his political career. He failed to capture the Democratic nomination in 1868 and spent the rest of his life a pariah to his party. Successor candidates to Johnson and the other president impeached but not convicted, Bill Clinton, both failed. After Nixon’s resignation, his vice president Gerald Ford also failed to win a new term in 1976. Allegations of criminal wrongdoing have also hounded some presidents who failed to win a second term, including Harry Truman (State Department corruption) and George H.W. Bush (Iran-Contra).

The Mueller probe does not need to lead to Trump's impeachment in order to doom his political fortunes. A string of high-level convictions or bombshell press reports in 2018 or 2020 can sink the electoral chances of any candidate affiliated with him, leaving the president more open to congressional investigation. And while incumbency offers a sitting president advantages for reelection, an atmosphere of criminality would make it more likely that Trump would join the seven other presidents who lost their bid for a second term in a general election. If Democrats do win in 2020, they may be able to credit Robert Mueller as much as anyone else for their victory.



I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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Eric Medlin

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.