The Fastest, Most Premature Impeachment in American History
The impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump is arguably the flimsiest and most premature impeachment in American history. It's also the fastest by far.
Before this week, only three presidents in U.S. history had faced an official impeachment inquiry from the U.S. House of Representatives. Two of them, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, were in their second terms. The third, Andrew Johnson, became president on April 15, 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The House initiated impeachment against him on February 24, 1868. He had been in office 2 years, 10 months, and 9 days.
President Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry on September 24, 2019, a mere 2 years, 8 months, and 4 days after he took office.
Had Special Counsel Robert Mueller's long investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016 not proven such a dud, Democrats would likely have started the impeachment even earlier.
Yet when Pelosi finally joined her fellow Democrats in calling for impeachment, she focused on a very premature scandal. That scandal centers on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. In that call, Trump asked Zelensky to help the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, investigate potential Ukraine corruption around Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Before the call, Trump had frozen $391 million in military aid to Ukraine. Democrats accused Trump of using U.S. funding to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the U.S. election.
At the time of Pelosi's announcement, the text of the phone call had not yet been released, but the president had announced that he would release the transcript on Wednesday. Rather than waiting for that release, Pelosi went for the jugular, declaring that "the actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of our election."
Yet when the transcript was released, it proved far less damaging than Pelosi suggested it would be. The call between Trump and Zelensky was friendly, and Zelensky first brought up Giuliani, leading toward the conversation about Joe Biden. Crucially, there was no quid pro quo explicitly mentioned or hinted at during the entire call.
In fact, when the U.S. president his Ukrainian counterpart to "do us a favor," he first asked Ukraine to help figure out how Russian hackers breached the Democratic National Committee's servers in the 2016 election. His request was not entirely clear from the transcript, but he asked Zelensky about a server connected to CrowdStrike, the Silicon Valley cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC to investigate Russian hacking.
When Trump did mention Biden, it was in the context of uprooting corruption, not the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
Hunter Biden was on the board of Ukraine gas company Burisma at the time a prosecutor was set to investigate Burisma for losing $1.8 billion in aid funding. Joe Biden took a trip to Ukraine and later bragged about getting the prosecutor fired. Unlike Trump, Biden did pressure Ukraine, telling then-President Petro Poroshenko he would withhold a $1 billion loan unless Poroshenko fired the prosecutor. Biden actually bragged about the quid pro quo, seemingly implicating former President Barack Obama in the deal.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Trump also mentioned a similar situation in China, where Biden and then-Secretary of State John Kerry went soft on China while their sons raked in cash.
The Hunter Biden Ukraine crisis stinks to high heaven. That said, there is some impropriety in Trump, a 2020 presidential candidate, encouraging a foreign country to investigate one of his most viable Democratic opponents.
Yet Democrats' hypocrisy undermines this impropriety, making the scandal extremely flimsy.
Democrats' hands are far from clean when it comes to pressuring foreign governments to investigate their political opposition. In May 2018, Democratic senators sent a letter to Ukraine's prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, asking him to reopen investigations into Trump related to the Robert Mueller probe. As The Washington Post's Marc Thiessen pointed out, "In the letter, they implied their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake." The July 25 call did not involve a quid pro quo, but this letter did.
Ukrainian officials have also tried to present evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of American Democrats and their allies in Ukraine, specifically involving foreign meddling against Trump and for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Democrats can sermonize about the sanctity of U.S. elections all they want, but if the president did anything wrong, they've done far worse, with Ukraine in particular.
Even if the Democrats had no such scandals in their recent history, the July 25 call would not be grounds for impeachment. Trump can plausibly claim that the investigation into Biden has nothing to do with the 2020 election. With this recent history, Democrats do not have a leg to stand on.
The other impeachment inquiries proved stronger. The case against Nixon — involving the Watergate break-in to the DNC headquarters before Nixon's reelection in 1972 — was so strong, he resigned before the House of Representatives could even vote on impeachment. Democrat Andrew Johnson was impeached after he removed a secretary of war whom the Republican Congress passed a law (the Tenure of Office Act, which was in effect until 1887) to protect during the tense post-Civil War period of Reconstruction. Firing and replacing the secretary of war Abraham Lincoln had nominated was a blatant rejection of Congress' authority.
Bill Clinton's impeachment has not aged well, but the case was still stronger than the case against Trump. The charges against Clinton included perjury regarding his relationships with Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones and multiple charges of obstruction of justice regarding the Lewinsky case. Many of those who urged Clinton's impeachment in the name of morality would go on to support Donald Trump, a notorious philanderer who has bragged about cheating on his wives (although it seems he has not done so while in the White House).
It remains to be seen whether Democrats will file articles of impeachment, and the whistleblower complaint about the July 25 call has not yet been made public. Democrats who reviewed the complaint have called it "disturbing," but they have every political motive to do so.
There is more to be seen, and this Ukraine scandal may be more damaging to Trump than it appears. But as of now, the impeachment inquiry against Trump is the fastest, most premature, and flimsiest impeachment push in U.S. history.
Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.