Christopher Nichols, an associate professor of history and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, is available to comment about the impeachment trail of President Donald Trump. His initial thoughts:
“This is an historic day. Only two presidents have been impeached (Johnson in 1868, Clinton in 1998) and none have been removed from office. The testimony in the House, followed by a vote, and likely a trial in the Senate represent an enormously significant moment in American political history.
“We have already seen at least two lines of competing messaging emerge regarding offense and defense in these hearings – a somber Democratic approach to detailing the facts of Ukraine “extortion” and a process-based criticism of the whole effort as one intended to “overturn” the election of 2016. In general, however, we have not heard a robust defense of the actions themselves. President Trump’s efforts – likely to be demonstrated in testimony and thus far born out in depositions and transcripts – aimed for public Ukrainian investigations of the Burisma company, Joe and Hunter Biden, and the debunked conspiracy theory of a Ukrainian role in hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
“As I have argued, this effort of public impeachment hearings is in line with the intent of those who debated and wrote the Constitution and included the impeachment clause. Their arguments were clear: impeachable offenses, according to Alexander Hamilton, “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Their primary fear regarded foreign influence in American politics. Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and many others recognized that impeachment would be simultaneously legalistic and political, with emphasis on the latter; it is not about establishing a crime, but, rather, finding, assessing, and potentially punishing actions that create “injuries done immediately to the society itself.” Constitutional Convention debates about impeachment also confronted the question of timing. They were quite certain, the time into service, before, or after election, did not matter.
“Holding these hearings in public makes it all transparent. It allows the American public to learn the evidence and to see the process. As in the cases of Nixon and Clinton, open hearings also will undoubtedly make for more theatrics and grand-standing. As Hamilton put it in 1788, “the prosecution of [impeachable offenses], for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.” Indeed, in Federalist Papers #65 Hamilton also suggested what we will see as a likely result and has been born out in all the previous impeachment hearings, trials, and votes: “there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
“Given the stonewalling of the Trump Administration regarding testimony, documents, and more, a crucial result of this process pertains to the battle over executive vs. legislative power. As the Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton impeachments did, the outcome of these hearings and the formal impeachment votes to follow is likely to scar the nation and further cement rising polarization an era many lament as being “post-truth.” Regardless of the partisan politics involved in the give-and-take of the testimony, or the specifics of the impeachable offenses, something bigger is at stake: the future of the American presidency and Congress’s role as co-equal branch hang in the balance.”
Nichols can be reached at [email protected] or 541-737-3530.
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