The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the impeachment trials of President Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton and identify any ethical dilemmas associated with each individual case and whether or not criminal chargers were appropriate or not. Before delving into the trials here is a brief description of what impeachment is and how the process works. “Technically speaking, impeachment is the Senate’s quasi-criminal proceeding instituted to remove a public officer, not the actual act of removal. Most references to impeachment, however, encompass the entire process, beginning with the House’s impeachment inquiry” (Henchey, 1999, para. 3). “The Constitution’s framers included impeachment as a method of removing officeholders who corrupted the government, endangered the constitutional order, or failed to uphold the Constitution in some deeply fundamental way” (Finkelman, 1999, p. 18).
However, technically speaking a government official could commit a crime and not be subject to impeachment on the other hand an actual crime does not have to be committed in order to be impeached. The Constitution stated two offenses that were mandated as impeachable offenses: treason and bribery. “Both ‘sell out’ the nation: They are not ordinary crimes but go directly to the functions of the government itself and to the nation’s fundamental security” (Finkelman, 1999, p. 18).
Ethical dilemmas surrounding impeachment trials of United States Presidents. After researching the actions of President Andrew Johnson which led to his impeachment trial I found ethical dilemmas not only within the scope of his actions but also within the scope of the charges or lack of charges brought against him at the impeachment hearing.
According to history, Johnson’s actions were impeachable under the Constitution’s definition of impeachable offenses as they directly undermined our Constitution and endangered the welfare of our nation, our liberties, and the lives and freedoms of American Civil War heroes. During the time Johnson was President, the United States was in a very vulnerable state, Lincoln had just been assassinated, hence Johnson became President, the Civil war had just ended, the north having won, and the north and south were still divided.
The majority in Congress favored a Reconstruction program that would accomplish, at minimum, four things: African- American suffrage; substantial equality for former slaves; physical an political protection for former slaves, Southern unionists, and Northerners who had moved to the South in the wake of the war; and a remarking of the South that would exclude former Confederate military leaders and officials from public office (Finkelman, 1999, p. 18). Johnson who was an ex-slave owner and a known racist vehemently opposed the reconstruction proposal and did everything he could to undermine Congress’ power in order to see that such and act would not be passed.
His actions not only went against Congress, they undermined the Civil War Victory and endangered the lives of all who fought for the freedom and liberties of the African-Americans. “Johnson was trying to put back in power the very white leaders who had started the war” (Finkelman, 1999, p. 20). He blatantly obstructed congressional policy and may very well have exceeded his presidential authority. These were of course charges that could have and should have been brought against Johnson at his impeachment trial. However, no such charges were ever brought. Instead, the only charges brought against him centered on the Tenure of Office Act and whether or not the President had the right to overstep valid statues passed by Congress.
Ethically speaking, I believe Johnson was wrong on numerous ethical issues and I believe Congress committed a grave ethical wrong for not calling him out on these issues when they impeached him. Had Johnson been impeached on the wrongs referenced in the above paragraph the outcome of his impeachment trial may have been entirely different but at least one thing is for sure had he been impeached on those charges at least it would have been on issues that actually mattered and actions by government officials that the framers of the Constitution validated as impeachable acts.
The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and the ethical dilemmas surrounding the events leading up to the hearings and the trial were far different than those surrounding Andrew Johnson. Clinton’s action’s while clearly offensive on a marital and personal nature were not actions that were detrimental to our government and his ability to lead our government.
In all honesty, I am at a loss as to why Clinton was ever impeached. When the impeachment proceedings first began I believed that it was a correct course of action only because he as President of the United States is also the Commander and Chief of the United States Military. In the military, adultery is considered a criminal act, so my belief was that if our military is held to this standard than the Commander and Chief, our President should also be held accountable to the same standard. However, now that I understand more about what justifies an impeachable offense and that a criminal act does not necessarily justify an impeachable act I do not belief that an impeachment proceeding should have ever been brought against President Bill Clinton.
Yes, Clinton’s actions as President of the United States were unethical to say the least. Here we have a President who is supposed to not only be governing our nation under the laws of our Constitution but also setting an example as a respectable an upstanding member of society, who is supposed to have moral and family values and is supposed to be someone that the American public can look up to and respect. However, he failed to set this example when he got caught in the extramarital affair. Yet, this act alone did not justify a move to impeach him.
He also lied and tried to cover up his affair, yet the majority of the American public still did not view this as having any effect on his ability to govern our nation. While Clinton’s action’s may have been ethically and morally wrong on a private and personal level they were not in any way a danger to our nation, our Constitution, or our liberties and freedoms. At no point did his actions jeopardize our liberties or the security of our nation. So, why then did Congress move to impeach? I’m sure I don’t have the answer to this question. However, I believe they created an ethical dilemma by doing so.
Impeachment is not finally about justice; it is a political process designed to remove the officeholders who have threatened the nature of government and, in the process, lost the nation’s confidence. It is important to note that poll after poll suggested that Americans did not view Clinton’s offenses as impeachable. Thus, he had not lost the nation’s confidence. He misled the American people by lying about private misdeeds, not corruption in office; thus, the vast majority of those polled rejected impeachment and removal as the appropriate remedy. Impeachment, in the end, must be about tragedy and danger that threaten our system of government and our liberty (Finkelman, 1999, p. 20).
In contrast to Clinton’s impeachment, the circumstances surrounding President Nixon’s impeachment proceeding were entirely different. However, Nixon never went to trial, he resigned before he could be brought to trial. Nixon’s actions were a direct threat to our government and our civil liberties. Had Nixon not resigned and been brought to trial he most likely would have been convicted, the evidence against him was overwhelming and Nixon obviously new this, hence his resignation. “He had threatened democratic government in the 1972 elections as well as fundamental liberties by spying on citizens and corrupting government agencies to harass individual Americans, undermining government and liberty for all” (Finkelman, 1999, p. 20). Clearly, Nixon committed impeachable offenses as proscribed by the framers of the Constitution.
Should there have been criminal charges brought against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton? Regarding President Andrew Johnson, I believe it is difficult to determine whether or not criminal charges should have been brought against him. I think his actions were more ethically wrong and impeachable than they were of a criminal nature.
Under the laws of our nations and our states I can’t say that I can find a criminal violation, however, I do believe that had he been charged with the actions that led to his impeachment instead of just the charge of issue over the Tenure of Office Act he would have been convicted and removed from office. President Bill Clinton did not commit any criminal act and therefore no criminal proceedings were necessary. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, if he were subject to military law where adultery is considered a crime and since as President he is also Commander and Chief of the Military should he be held to the same standards as those he leads than yes he should have been criminally charged.
President Richard Nixon is an entirely different scenario because it is clearly obvious that criminal charges were appropriate in Nixon’s case. Nixon was impeached on charges of obstruction of justice, contempt of Congress and abuse of power. Obstruction of justice in and of itself is a criminal charge. I am not sure as to whether or not the latter two charges can be classified as criminal. However, several of Nixon’s officials including some cabinet members were eventually tried, convicted and imprisoned for crimes committed during the Watergate scandal and Nixon was later given a full pardon from his successor President Gerald Ford for any crimes he might have committed while President.
In conclusion, impeachment is a process that is proscribed in our Constitution to ensure the removal from office of corrupt government officials, including the President, should it be determined that they are in fact corrupt and pose a threat to our nation, our Constitution, our government, liberties or freedom. Impeachment is not limited to our Presidents, it extends to federal judges as well. To date only three Presidents have been impeached as have been discussed and none were actually removed from office.
President Nixon resigned before trial had he not done so he more than likely would have been convicted and removed from office. The impeachment process seems to be a fair and necessary process to ensure a corruption free government. However, it is somewhat flawed in the sense that at times it may be used more for political gain than for what it was intended for such as in the case of President Clinton. This is however to be expected as we are only human and as it goes with human nature no design, law or plan is ever perfect or flawless.
Finkelman, P. (1999). The trials of presidential impeachment. Retrieved from http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/insights_law_society/up
Henchey, B. (1999, January 5). Lii backgrounder on impeachment. Retrieved from http://www.law.cornell.edu/background/impeach/impeach.htm
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