From Johnson to Clinton: How Pa’s Capitol Hill delegation played a role in impeachment

By: - November 5, 2019 6:30 am

When the nation is navigating turbulent times, it’s helpful to look back to history to remind ourselves that some precedent exists for even the most serious situations.

So as the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump continue, let’s take a look at the three previous attempts to constitutionally oust the 45th president of the United States. 

For in each instance the representatives of the Keystone State played a unique and pivotal role. Perhaps a reminder of our past can provide some guidance to our representatives today.

Andrew Johnson

For most of American history, impeachment was exceedingly rare. A middle-aged citizen, however, may be now witnessing their third round at this procedure. 

As a result, it’s worth going all the way back to the 19th century to examine the little-remembered first attempt at a presidential impeachment. 

In fact, our 17th President had quite a bit in common with today’s chief executive. Take for example E.P. Whipple’s stinging 1866 description of Johnson published in The Atlantic and consider the Trump parallels:

“The president of the United States has so singular a combination of defects for the office of a constitutional magistrate…Insincere as well as stubborn, cunning as well as unreasonable, vain as well as ill-tempered, greedy of popularity as well as arbitrary in disposition, veering in his mind as well as fixed in his will, he unites in his character the seemingly opposite qualities of demagogue and autocrat.”

Pennsylvanians have been central to every presidential impeachment effort

A long train of abuses and usurpations inflamed Radical Republicans until they could no longer take it and sought to oust Johnson from the White House. 

Perhaps the president’s most powerful enemy in this Congress was Pennsylvania’s own U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens. The firebrand led a state delegation of 18 Republicans in the House against just six Democrats. 

When 11 articles of impeachment came to the floor of the House, the state’s delegation split along party lines with 16 Republicans voting for, six Democrats voting against and two Republicans absent (one was dying, I don’t know what the other guy’s excuse was).

At the time, and since, most of the focus of the allegations against Johnson concerned his dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Stevens, however, felt their strongest case was the eleventh article: “Bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions.”

He worked as a manager for the prosecution during the Senate trial even amid flagging health. 

Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. Sen. Simon Cameron supported Johnson’s removal, but his colleague Charles Buckalew, the only Democratic senator from a Union state, voted not guilty.

The support of all nine Senate Democrats as well as ten Republicans ultimately saved Andrew Johnson, as the 35 Republican guilty votes fell one short of the two-thirds threshold for removal.

Thaddeus Stevens died less than three months later.  

Richard Nixon

While Nixon’s fate never reached the full House, the Judiciary Committee adopted three out of five articles against him and Pennsylvania’s Joshua Eilberg (D) sat on that body.

Eilberg found Richard Nixon guilty on four counts including obstruction of justice, abuse of power, contempt of Congress and tax fraud. He voted against the article which accused the President of usurping Congress’ powers through the secret bombing of Cambodia.

The first three articles advanced to the House, but they never got the chance to vote on them thanks to the work of Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott.

The Commonwealth’s senior senator served as the minority leader, and in that capacity made a fateful visit to the Oval Office on August 7, 1974.

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Alongside U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, a Republican, and U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, both of Arizona, Scott was tasked with convincing Nixon that his Congressional support had cratered and resignation was the only alternative.

Prior to the meeting, according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days”, Scott had come to question his own ability to stand by Nixon and openly wept while speaking with his old colleague Gerald Ford.

When the time came, Scott and the pair of Arizonans were advised by Chief of Staff Al Haig to push Nixon towards resignation without ever mentioning the word. 

The message was unmistakable. Goldwater was the conservative icon from the West while Scott was a Rockefeller Republican from the Northeast. Nixon had lost both wings of the party. 

Goldwater played the heavy, although Scott told the President that he estimated only about 15 Senators would vote to acquit. Scott categorized the whole situation as “grim.”

“Damn grim,” Nixon responded. The next night, he announced his resignation and left the White House the day after.

Bill Clinton

Ironically, considering how it’s remembered, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton would in some ways be the least purely partisan.

For instance Pennsylvania Congressman Paul McHale was the first Democrat to call for Clinton’s resignation, just days after the president admitted to an extramarital affair.

“I am someone who believes that the president is a man of enormous talent, genuine love of country, but who possesses some tragic and equally large flaws,” McHale told The New York Times. “If he is not held accountable we establish a precedent that may encourage some future president, someone more inclined to abuse power than President Clinton, to once again violate a judicial oath to tell the truth.”

McHale was one of five Democrats to support three of the four articles against Clinton (perjury to the Grand Jury; obstruction of justice and perjury in the Paula Jones case). He did not support the article concerning abuse of power.

On the other side of the aisle, GOP U.S. Rep. Phil English, of Erie, was one of a dozen Republicans to vote against the article on obstruction of justice. English was joined by Reps. James Greenwood and Bud Shuster on the Jones case perjury charge. Finally, Republican U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon joined the three in opposing the abuse of power article. 

When it came to the Senate trial, Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators once again split their votes despite sharing the same party. Junior Republican Sen. Rick Santorum voted to convict on the Grand Jury perjury and obstruction of justice charges that passed the House.

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Meanwhile, iconoclastic Sen. Arlen Specter, also a Republican found Clinton not guilty on both counts. The senior senator was beginning to enter a transitory phase in his career. A 1996 presidential bid never got off the ground and he’d been re-elected in a landslide the previous month.  

The GOP never forget those votes. Specter faced such a close primary challenge from then-Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey in 2004 that he jumped to the Democratic Party in 2009 in order to avoid a rematch. In the end, he was unable to win the nomination and Toomey ended up taking his place in the Senate.

Donald Trump

Which brings us to today and the question of what role Pennsylvania’s Congressional representatives may play in the impeachment effort against Donald Trump.

The delegation’s dean, U.S. Rep. Michael Doyle, D-18th District, is the only member remaining from the Clinton saga, but the biggest move so far arguably came from freshman U.S. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District.

She was one of seven Democrats with a national security background to write an op-ed that helped convince U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that the Ukrainian scandal was sufficient grounds to launch an inquiry.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee contains three Pennsylvanians: Vice Chairwoman Mary Gay Scanlon, of Delaware County’s 5th District; U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat from Montgomery County’s 4th District, and Republican U.S. Rep.  Guy Reschenthaler, of southwestern Pennsylvania’s 14th District.  Yet the rules set by the Democratic leadership instead empower the Intelligence Committee to control the hearing process.  

The initial inquiry vote fell along party lines and there is little to suggest any major shift in the immediate future.

Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of the Bucks County-based 1st District, remains a possibility, since his district is one of just three to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and still have a Republican representative. While watching Fitzpatrick, it’s worth keeping an eye on U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. 

Van Drew was one of just two Dems to vote against continuing the inquiry. As members of the bipartisan Problem Solving Caucus, Fitzpatrick and Van Drew work closely together in a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s conceivable they could pair up and switch sides.

Finally there’s our Senators. Democrat Bob Casey, the state’s senior senator, has already made clear he favors impeaching Trump. Republican Toomey, on the other hand, remains opposed.

Nonetheless, the junior senator is far from Trump’s biggest fan. After all, Toomey infamously waited until an hour before the polls closed on Election Night 2016 to reveal that he was voting for his party’s nominee.

During that campaign, Toomey even pledged to show independence regardless of who won the contest between Clinton and Trump.

“In Washington, if you don’t have some independence, some backbone, you might as well not even be there,” he declared in a closing TV ad.

Whether it was Thaddeus Stevens’ righteous zeal, Hugh Scott’s selfless leadership or Arlen Specter’s maverick behavior, Pennsylvania’s always had someone at the forefront of an impeachment battle.

It remains to be seen whether Pat Toomey will uphold this tradition.

Capital-Star Correspondent Nick Field writes from Bucks County. His work appears frequently. 

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