When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, every school-boy (and girl) knew that whatever a president did (or didn’t do) during his presidency wouldn’t be the basis for legal actions against him after he left office. When President Andrew Johnson was impeached and tried in the Senate in 1868, he avoided conviction (and eviction from office) by a single vote. But despite that close result, no action was taken against him, or even contemplated, after he left office in March 1869. Whatever he might have done (or failed to do) while in office was considered non-actionable.
President Richard Nixon came within a whisker of being impeached in 1974 by a hostile Democrat-controlled House, but he resigned before such action could be taken. After Gerald Ford took over, his first act was to issue a “full pardon” for Mr. Nixon – thus heading off any punitive legal actions that might be contemplated by the former president’s political enemies. That action earned Mr. Ford the undying enmity of those politicians who hoped to hang Mr. Nixon from a lamppost on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Mr. Ford never overcame the smearing Mr. Nixon’s enemies gave him. He served only 2 and ½ years in office before Jimmy Carter defeated him in 1976.
After the impeachment buzz that drove Mr. Nixon from office, nothing similar arose until President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Intern Monika Lewinsky was publicized. Those reports led to further inquiries into Mr. Clinton’s conduct before he became president, which uncovered perjury and jury-tampering during his trial on sexual harassment charges brought by Paula Jones – an Arkansas state employee during Mr. Clinton’s governorship.
The charges were clearly true – particularly the jury-tampering charge – but Mr. Clinton’s political and media allies convinced much of the public that the impeachment was really about the president’s highly publicized sexual relationship with Miss Lewinsky. Those allies insisted that the impeachment articles did not reach the level of “high crimes” specified in the Constitution.
Following Mr. Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in December 1998, the Senate failed to convict him on charges that would have put any ordinary citizen in jail. The Senate’s vote on the obstruction charge was 55 for conviction and 45 against – strictly along party lines. (Republicans held a 55-45 majority in the Senate at the time.) But on the perjury charge, five GOP senators also voted against conviction, making the vote 50 to 50. Obviously, neither vote reached the 2/3 majority needed for conviction.
After Mr. Clinton left office in 2001, an Arkansas court stripped him of his law license for five years because of those same charges which he had dodged in the Senate. Many historians believe the revelations which emerged from Mr. Clinton’s impeachment proceedings also spoiled Vice-president Al Gore’s chances to win the presidency in the 2000 election against George W. Bush.
This brings us, historically, to Donald Trump, who was so hated and feared by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and politicians of both major paries, that a high-level cabal hatched plots – including the “Russia collusion” tale – against him even before he was elected in 2016. When those attempts to defeat him failed, Mr. Trump’s enemies continued to harass and accuse him throughout his term in office. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives impeached him twice, in his final two years in office, on charges later shown to be entirely spurious – the second impeachment actually occurring after his defeat in the 2020 election. Neither impeachment resulted in a Senate-conviction.
Mr. & Mrs. Trump at Trump Tower, before announcing for presidency
Of course, the two impeachments of Mr. Trump is a first. But so is his prosecution by local district attorneys after he left the presidency. At some point it evidently occurred to several DAs that they could make national names for themselves by arresting, indicting, and (hopefully) convicting the former president for “crimes” he committed both in and out of office.
Any objections that an ex-president can’t be prosecuted for actions he took (or failed to take) while in office were either not recognized by those DAs, or else were brushed aside in the all-too-realistic belief that the average voter wouldn’t know one thing from another on such matters. At this writing, local DA indictments of Mr. Trump for crimes, both in and out of office, total 91 charges relating to 4 indictments, at last count. District Attorneys like Alvin Bragg, of New York, trail streams of glory – including TV and radio interviews, and worshipful NY Times puff pieces – wherever they go. It is a great time to be a local DA.
Widespread voter-ignorance has thus become the protective cocoon for local politicians who see fame and fortune ahead for being the one who stopped Donald Trump from running for the presidency again, and perhaps frog-marched him into the pokey. Of course, those ambitious pols seem not to understand that their actions – whether successful or not – are setting a new model for treatment of an ex-president of any party.
From now on, every ex-president’s enemies – which every high-level politician has in abundance – will feel free to pursue, prosecute, indict and convict their political nemesis for what he did (or failed to do) while he held high office. The new protocol of hounding ex-presidents legally will turn our political and governmental system on its head and discourage all but the toughest and most persistent candidates from seeking the #1 political job in the country.
Not to worry about ex-presidents of their own party, say experienced Democrat graybeards. They are confident that Republicans – the Nice Party, of long and celebrated disposition – would never go after a Democrat ex-president. So their guys will be safe. No problemo. But I wouldn’t bet on that. Sometimes Republicans can be a little slow on the uptake, but they have shown that they can learn how to play hardball from their political opponents, as some past history demonstrates.
After driving Richard Nixon out of office, Democrats got a law passed which authorized Congressional appointment of a Special Prosecutor who could investigate a president and bring charges against him (or her). Of course, they anticipated using it against future Republican presidents, but they overlooked the other possibility. After Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in 1994 and Bill Clinton was caught with his pants down, the new Congress appointed attorney Ken Starr as Special Counsel. Mr. Starr dug up so much dirt on Mr. Clinton, and raised so much political hell, that Democrats crossed the aisle as soon as they could to repeal the Special Prosecutor statute. The game wasn’t as much fun when Republicans got to play it.
Long ago my young daughter was upset because parents of some of her friends were getting divorced. She wondered what made that happen – perhaps worrying that it might hit us. I answered that it seemed to me that a marriage has the strength to last only if each of the two partners retains good will toward the union. If one or the other loses that essential good will, then the marriage hits rough waters, causing the partner who retains good will to get tired of trying to hold things together. The marriage comes apart, like a boat with an unstoppable leak.
A Republic like ours resembles a marriage. To survive and function in good order it requires good will from all political sides and factions. There can be disagreements over laws and policy, up to a point, but going after ex-officials legally – including ex-presidents – over policy and ruling actions represents a loss of good will that can be very difficult to restore.
Will the new model of prosecuting ex-presidents meet a much-needed cancellation, once it hits a Democrat? Who knows? But I hope so. These are dangerous times for the country. Where they could lead is unpredictable.
Lincoln Assassination (April 14, 1865)