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Presidential Historians On What They're Watching For During President Trump's Impeachment Trial

An engraving showing the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the Senate March 13, 1868. The House approved 11 articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868, arising essentially from political divisions over Reconstruction following the Civil War. After a 74-day Senate trial, the Senate acquitted Johnson on three of the articles by a one-vote margin each and decided not to vote on the remaining articles. (Library of Congress)
An engraving showing the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the Senate March 13, 1868. The House approved 11 articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868, arising essentially from political divisions over Reconstruction following the Civil War. After a 74-day Senate trial, the Senate acquitted Johnson on three of the articles by a one-vote margin each and decided not to vote on the remaining articles. (Library of Congress)

On the first day of President Trump’s impeachment trial, we reflect on the moment with two historians. They’ll share with us what they’ll be watching for and how past events might shed light on the present.


Rachel Shelden, professor of history at Penn State, specializing in the 19th Century. Author of “Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War.” (@rachelshelden)

Mark Updegrove, presidential historian for ABC News. President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. (@MarkKUpdegrove)

Interview Highlights

What are you looking out for during this impeachment trial?

Rachel Shelden: “I’m looking for a lot of things, but one of the most important things I’m interested in is how history is used in this process — how it’s weaponized, how both sides talk about it — but especially how the Trump administration tries to spin the issue of history. And we’ve seen that already in the impeachment briefs, the briefs for the trial in particular referring to the Federalist Papers and two previous impeachments.

“History is often weaponized for various causes. And in this case the Johnson trial from 1868, I think, really served as a model for members of the Trump administration. Mike Pence, for example, had an op-ed recently in The Wall Street Journal where he talked about one of the folks who voted to acquit President Johnson during the impeachment trial, and painted him as a really good-hearted and really mindful senator. And in fact, he was bribed to vote against a conviction of President Johnson. And as a result, I think we have to be careful to see what the historical precedents are, and the way they’re used.”

Rachel Shelden: “The biggest concern I have is that we get too bogged down in the details, and lose sight of the bigger questions about what this means for democracy. And this is what all of the impeachment questions have been in the other two times that it has happened. And then today, right? Thinking about, are we at a moment where our democracy is in danger? And in 1868, we were we are right a moment in which reconstruction of the South was in danger by the president. And today, we are having questions about whether our free and fair elections are in danger because of this president. And so that is the question at the heart of all of this. And although we can get focused on these particular details of Ukraine, we do have to keep the broader context of what this is all about, what the Democratic problem is here.”

On historical precedents that have held over from past impeachment trials

Mark Updegrove: “I think Gerald Ford set the standard for how we should respond to times like this in our history. And interestingly, when he was the House Minority Leader in 1970, he said an impeachable offense is whatever the House of Representatives considers it to be at any moment in history. That was four years before he assumed the presidency, upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. And at that very sober moment in our history, after he was sworn into office — as our first unelected president — he made his remarks. And we all remember him saying, ‘Our long national nightmare is over.’ But we, I think, lose sight of what he said next, which I think is more important. He said our constitution works, ‘We are a nation of laws and not men. Here the people rule.’ And I’m wondering, at this moment in history, are we still a nation of laws and not men? Does our constitution work? Do the people rule in our country? And so that’s going to depend on the impartiality of the jurors who preside over this trial. Republicans and Democrats alike.”

On whether the constitution works

Mark Updegrove: “The fact is that the constitution is simply an expression of the ideals of our founding fathers. They are just ideas etched on parchment. Our willingness to uphold them depends on each generation’s appetite for what this republic should look like. I don’t know at this time in our history whether we are serious about upholding our constitutional ideals. If we allow, I think, the president to invite foreign powers into our electoral process, it sets a precedent for future commander in chief’s — for future presidents. That’s what I’m deeply concerned about — the precedent that this sets, whether it’s constitutional or not.”

On how the media should cover the impeachment trial

Mark Updegrove: “It’s a very different time in history. And I think that media outlets should all — just as the jurors in this trial — should be thinking about impartiality. Be thinking about dispassion. But there’s no ignoring the fact that you have these media outlets that are preventing a certain point of view, because it’s good business. And we have social media doing the exact same thing. And I think that it’s not been a bad exercise for American journalism to be introspective, to figure out what it is to be a responsible news vehicle in the 21st century. During the so-called information age.”

From The Reading List

The New Yorker: “What House Republicans Can Learn From the Bipartisan Effort to Impeach Nixon” — “The Nixon impeachment inquiry had dragged on for more than six months when a group of mostly moderate lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee—four Republicans and three Southern Democrats—began meeting in secret, in July of 1974, at the office of Tom Railsback, a popular Illinois Republican who was a leader in the Party’s reform movement. The committee’s staff had recently drawn up draft articles of impeachment for the members to consider, and public hearings were scheduled to begin at the end of the month, followed by a vote.

“It was not at all clear, however, that impeachment would be successful. Democrats controlled the House and Senate, but failure to secure a bipartisan vote in committee, in all likelihood, would mean that Richard Nixon would survive a House vote on impeachment and escape a Senate trial. The House members who gathered in Railsback’s office “realized that the impeachment of the president was in their hands,” the historian Timothy Naftali writes in the new book ‘Impeachment: An American History.’ As Raymond Thornton, an Arkansas Democrat who was part of the group, later said, ‘I considered that this was most likely the most important task that I would ever have in government and that my whole effort should be given to the study of it and to try to come up with an answer that was fair and right and which I could live with for the rest of my life.’”

“Next week, the House Intelligence Committee is set to begin holding public hearings on the impeachment of Donald Trump, but the chances of a similar bipartisan coalition emerging—in either the House or the Senate—are slim. When participants in the “fragile coalition,” as the group came to be called, decided to support articles of impeachment, they effectively ended Nixon’s Presidency. Two weeks later, Nixon resigned. The following year, all seven members of the group agreed to be interviewed by historians from St. Joseph’s College, in Rensselaer, Indiana, and participated in a series of recorded group conversations at a resort in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The transcripts make for instructive—and deflating—reading, underscoring just how much partisanship and tribalism has distorted our politics in the nearly half century since Watergate.”

The New Yorker: “Spoiler Alert: There Will Be No Impartial Justice for Donald Trump” — “Shortly after 2 P.M. on Thursday, ninety-nine of the hundred members of the United States Senate raised their hands and swore en masse to do ‘impartial justice’ in the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. That, of course, is an impossibility in the political world they inhabit. Neither impartiality nor justice is on offer in this proceeding. Three years into Trump’s tenure, there is precisely no one in the U.S. Capitol who is undecided about the President, on the subject of his impeachment or any other. And yet there is real suspense, in the way that the Trump Presidency has conditioned us to expect: Will there be wild new revelations? (There already have been in the past twenty-four hours.) Will there be inappropriate tweeting by the defendant in the White House? (A given.) Will even a single senator break from the calcified partisan battle lines? (Who knows?)

“This Senate trial is only the third such proceeding in American history, and, despite what appears to be its preordained acquittal of the President by his fellow-Republicans, it is starting out with such great uncertainty that it’s still not even clear if there will be witnesses called and evidence submitted. How can it be a trial without them? The Democrat-controlled House voted to impeach Trump in a party-line vote in December, and yet key facts about the President’s aborted scheme to pressure Ukraine for his personal political benefit remain unknown (although they are very much knowable), owing to an executive-branch information blockade ordered by Trump. Will those facts come out before the Chief Justice of the United States bangs down the gavel on the trial’s seemingly inevitable outcome?

“In today’s brutally dysfunctional capital—in which institutions of government are controlled by feuding clans that communicate with each other almost exclusively via hostile tweets and cable-news sound bites—anything can turn into an exercise in raw power politics. Even the ministerial matter of transmitting the articles of impeachment from the House to the Senate and beginning the Senate trial became the subject of an entire holiday season of made-for-TV drama. For weeks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to turn over the articles until she’d received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about what kind of trial he planned to run. No such assurances were forthcoming, although Pelosi arguably succeeded in one respect—turning the debate away from her side’s forthcoming defeat in the Senate to the matter of what would constitute a fair trial. Democrats have redefined victory to mean not necessarily winning the case but merely getting a proper hearing for it. For now, at least.”

The New York Times: “The Trial That Would Be A Template” — “The senator was livid. The president of his own party had gotten himself in so much trouble that he was now facing impeachment. And so when the phone rang one night after dinner and the senator picked up to find the White House on the line, he cursed the commander in chief.

“‘You’re a fool!” the senator told the president. ‘You’re a damn, damn, damn fool!’

“The senator’s wife was aghast. ‘That’s the president!’ she whispered in horror.

“That was 21 years ago. The president was Bill Clinton, and the senator was Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who like other Democrats was furious at the position the leader of his party had put them in. Within a few months, Mr. Clinton would becomethe defendant in the first Senate impeachment trialin more than 130 years and Mr. Leahy one of the quasi-jurors charged with deciding whether he should be removed from office.

“That trial on allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit has taken on new meaning in recent days as the Senate once again gathers to consider charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against a president. The Clinton trial, the only time in anyone’s lifetime until now that an occupant of the White House has been judged by the Senate, serves as the template for how President Trump will be judged on accusations of abusing his office for political gain and obstructing Congress.”

This article was originally published on

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