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Being a Subpar President is Not an Impeachable Offense

In the early 1990s I used to teach about ‘impeachment’ in my college courses and many of my students thought it means being thrown out of office. But after Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 was followed by an easy acquittal, more and more Americans began to realize: “I guess impeachment doesn’t mean being thrown out of office, because Clinton’s still there.” So was Andrew Johnson after his impeachment. And so was Donald Trump, after both of them.

All four of those impeachments were partisan-driven absurdities, most of all Trump’s second one, which happened exactly one week before he stopped being president. Impeachment, of course, simply means bringing the impeached person to a trial presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, in which at least 67 senators vote to acquit or convict. Trump’s second impeachment trial probably wouldn’t have even started – and undoubtedly would not have concluded – until after he was already out of office.

From Johnson’s impeachment in 1868 to Clinton’s 130 years later, no president had ever been impeached. Since George Washington’s first inauguration, in 1789, we’d gone 109 years with just one impeachment. Yet, in the past 21 years, there have been three. And it looks as if there are more on the way.

The latest impeachment rabble is being roused by Republican Biden-bashers, who think he’s unfit for office because of the way he bungled Afghanistan. Let’s assume for the moment it’s all his fault. Let’s say that if Trump had still been in charge, we would’ve been gone by May 1 peacefully, and the Taliban wouldn’t have harmed a hair on anyone’s head. Let’s say that Biden had absolutely no doubts that the Afghan military would’ve crushed the Taliban. In that case, that political miscalculation would be right up there with Dick Cheney’s 2003 proclamation three days prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” But Cheney wasn’t impeached, nor was his boss, President George W. Bush, which was where the buck stopped.

Jimmy Carter wasn’t impeached for the botched rescue mission of American hostages in Iran, or for that entire 444-day crisis itself. John Kennedy wasn’t impeached for the equally disastrous Bay of Pigs. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t foresee Pearl Harbor, and gave away too much to Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin in the Yalta talks, but he never got impeached either.

Heck, even Aaron Burr, who as the sitting vice president of the United States shot and killed Alexander Hamilton near the Hudson River, in a duel, which was illegal in both states separated by the Hudson – New Jersey and New York – wasn’t impeached either!

If they haven’t already done so (between the time of my writing this and your reading it), the Biden-bashers are sure to mention that Biden had told then-Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in July, to change the impression that the Taliban were winning the skirmishes. Using typical sleight-of-hand sophistry, media outlets such as the New York Post have interpreted Biden’s words in the phone call with Ghani as follows: That “and there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture,” means: “we need to project a different picture, whether that picture true or not.” In other words, to lie. I interpret it differently. The “whether or not it’s true” remark portion refers to whether the Taliban were winning, not to the new impression that needed to be created. So, what Biden was really conveying was: “Whether or not it’s true that the Taliban are winning, we need to create a different impression.” He then proceeded to establish how that impression would be created: by gathering Afghanistan’s most prominent politicians and announcing a new military strategy. So, it’s not as if Biden said to Ghani: “I know you’re losing, but let’s just deny that you are.” It was more an attempt to actually change strategies and win, and, very importantly, to establish that impression internationally.

If Trump had done such a thing, it wouldn’t be one or two mainstream media outlets spinning it that way, it would be more like two thousand of them.

I’m not sticking up for Joe Biden because I think he’s been a good president; I don’t even think he’s the hallmark of honesty and integrity that so many insist he is. I’ve already written extensively that it’s quite plausible that he’ll dethrone Jimmy Carter as the worst president of my lifetime. But being lousy at your job shouldn’t get you impeached.

In fact, possibly the only president who ever deserved to be impeached was the one who resigned before that could happen: Richard Nixon. You see, although Nixon did not order his men to break into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel, didn’t know it was going to happen, and fumed when he found out that it did, he’s caught red-handed on tape trying to cover it up, which is obstruction of justice.

Keep in mind, not every crime must result in impeachment. Throwing a candy wrapper out of a car window is a crime. Surely, the House of Representatives wouldn’t impeach a president over that. On second thought, maybe they would.

Presidents Jackson, Clinton, and Trump (twice) were impeached on legal technicalities in cases where “charges never should have been pressed.” In Nixon’s case, at least impeachment, if not conviction, was warranted. Maybe that’s why Nixon saw the writing on the wall and quit, whereas the other three were vindicated.

Oh how I long for another 130-year impeachment hiatus. Maybe after the first 10 years or so, Americans may begin respecting Congress again. On the other hand, maybe I should be happy that a lot more of my students now know what impeachment means.

Though I prefer Gerald Ford’s explanation better: before becoming president and while a U.S. Congressman from Michigan, Ford said that high crimes and misdemeanors are “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers them to be at a moment in history.”

Constantinos E. Scaros' latest book, How to Talk Politics without Arguing, is available on amazon.com. For a complete list of his books, visit www.listentodino.com.

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