Impeachment isn’t the only way: How past presidents were removed from office
David Priess‘ new “How to Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable or Unfit Chief Executives” contains enough sharp analysis, rich detail, and epic sweep to enthrall even the casual fan of history, to say nothing of the political wonks, who will almost certainly comprise its core audience. Priess’ book is particularly relevant right now because America’s current president, Donald Trump, is a man who seems to be manifestly unfit for his office.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I just finished reading the manuscript for your book, which I would describe as catnip for presidential history buffs.
I love it.
I’m curious what inspired you to write it? I mean it clearly is relevant to the Donald Trump era given the calls for him to be removed from office, but usually a book like this takes a bit longer to prepare. Trump’s only been in office for just under two years.
Yeah, but both are true.
My first book was “The President’s Book of Secrets,” which was the history of the president’s daily brief, the daily intelligence document that has gone to all of our modern presidents. In that book, the stories about the presidents are generally — not universally, but generally — good news stories, that is the presidency of working the way it’s supposed to work. Presidents receiving intelligence almost exclusively taking it seriously, acting based upon the information in it, making policy the best they can on tough national security choices. That book was about presidents behaving well. Part of me felt like I needed to balance that because this book really is about presidents behaving badly and what we do with them.
I had that in mind going into 2016 as I was wrapping up some of the publicity and the release of the first book. As I got into that fall and started thinking what else to write about, suddenly there was this election campaign. Suddenly, there was this president-elect. Then talking to my publisher, we decided that a good book to hit in that area would be, what are all the ways that presidents have left office? Because people were already talking before he got inaugurated about the possibility — some said the probability — that Donald Trump would not make it through his term. I’d heard the word “impeachment” thrown around a lot.
I knew there were already other authors working explicitly on that very narrow topic, but I had not seen anybody taking a wider view of all of the ways that America has ejected its presidents or tried to across all of history. I decided to dive into it. Engage full-time in that research, talked to some historians and scholars, constitutional experts to find out some of these nuances. Worked on it through 2017 and got it out right after the midterms when suddenly that’s even more relevant as people are talking about all the various methods that might be used to get rid of this president.
It’s interesting. The president that I found most intriguing from your book, and he’s a more obscure figure, is John Tyler. He is the most explicit example of a president essentially losing power because his own party turns on him. You can make the case that the same thing happened with Andrew Johnson, but I don’t really think he ever was a Republican.
No, not at all. Johnson was only on the ticket with Abraham Lincoln as a party of national unity during the Civil War. He was explicitly not a Republican.
But John Tyler, I mean, what a story. This is a guy whose name I’d heard along with many of these other 19th century old white guys — often with beards — who we’ve heard the names, but we don’t know anything about. The more I dug into his story, I realized, yes, of course you can remove a president at the ballot box every four years.
That’s the way the founders intended it, but the next method really is, before it even gets to the voters, the party kicks out the president by not re-nominating him for a second term. That is exactly what the Whig Party did with John Tyler, removing him from the party. Literally kicking him out of the party such that he would not be nominated again, at least by the Whigs, and certainly his old Democrats didn’t want him back either. He was effectively removed from office by being rejected by his own partisans.
That seemed to happen relatively frequently during the 19th century. It happened with Millard Fillmore, with Franklin Pierce, with James Buchanan, essentially with Andrew Johnson, with Chester Arthur. Then with William Taft in 1912, there was an attempt by elements in his own party to remove him. It failed, and ever since then it hasn’t happened again. I know you could make the case that it sort of happened with Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Technically speaking, he dropped out. I’ve actually read historians who argued that although he would have lost to Richard Nixon, he probably would have been nominated because Hubert Humphrey was eventually nominated.
It seems like the last time a president was effectively ousted by his own party was in 1884. By 1912, that was no longer viable. Do you think that has implications for Donald Trump and the Republican Party in 2020?
I think it is less likely than it was, let’s say 150 years ago, for that to happen, but by no means is it out of the realm of possibility.
I think we’re in a period of a historical aberration right now, Matt. I think what’s going on is, we’ve had… we’re coming off of three consecutive two term presidents who then constitutionally cannot run again, but when you had… and you had a two term president, just one removed before that. You had Ronald Reagan for eight years. George H.W. Bush only one term, but after that Bill Clinton and George W Bush and Barack Obama, all two term presidents.
For a significant percentage of the American public, they have only known two term presidents or almost exclusively, only known two term presidents, but that is not the historical norm. The only other time we had three consecutive two term presidents was at the beginning of the republic with [Thomas] Jefferson, [James] Madison and [James] Monroe. I think this is the aberration.
I think going back to a time when the party looks hard at its candidate and said, “You know, can’t we do better if we keep some of the same policies but being championed by a different person who doesn’t have the negatives?” I think there’s definitely going to be some people, primarily Donald Trump, somebody trying to get the party nomination away from him. I don’t know how much appetite there is within what’s left of the Republican Party for that, but certainly history suggests that it can happen even with a very popular president, which this one is not.
I go back to the case of George H.W. Bush in 1992. Just one year before the campaign was really starting, he had the highest approval numbers in American history, coming off of the first Gulf War. Fast forward to the campaign, he has a very serious challenge — from Pat Buchanan of all people — that nobody would have predicted going back to the previous year. Certainly, stranger things have happened in American history. I don’t think it’s out of the question, despite the consolidation of party power.
I’m thinking of an interview I had with Allan Lichtman, the American University historian who wrote “The 13 Keys to the White House.” One of the keys is whether the incumbent party faces a challenger. His argument, and I found it compelling, is that in the post-1884 era, when an incumbent is faced with a challenger in his own party as he seeks re-election, even though he isn’t likely to actually lose the nomination, it usually spelled out doomed during the general. I’m thinking Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama did not face primary challenges when they ran for re-election. Not only did George Bush Sr. face a primary challenger, but Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the two presidents of war Reagan, also faced primary challenges–
And look what happened.
–they did beat off their challengers, but then they lost.
I feel like in an almost indirect way, it is still possible for the party to reject their own presidents.
Indeed. It’s a funny cause-effect relationship that I’ve seen on that is, most people will say… and there may be something to this. That Gerald Ford in 1976 gets a very hard challenge from Ronald Reagan almost up to the convention. Jimmy Carter gets a very hard challenge, not as hard, but a hard challenge from Ted Kennedy. George Bush Sr. gets the challenge from Pat Buchanan. The conventional wisdom is, because they took so many punches during the primaries within their own party that they were exposed and they were weakened in the general election and that’s why it didn’t go well.
I think it happens in reverse too, which it’s not that the primary challenge weakens them. It’s because they have perceived weaknesses that the primary challenge comes in the first place. Those weaknesses will come out in the general election. Even if there hadn’t been a hard primary challenge, I don’t think Gerald Ford would have had it easier against Jimmy Carter. I don’t think Jimmy Carter would have had it easier against Ronald Reagan, but it’s definitely a dynamic to look at, to see what are people… what arguments are being made against the president.
If you have a credible challenger from within the party who represents a significant opinion within the party who says, “This president is not fit to stay in office and here are the reasons why.” Then that can supplement what people from the other political party are saying about the lack of fitness for office. Maybe that can create more of a general consensus about, well, we don’t really care who replaces him, but this president shouldn’t be in office. That’s definitely the dynamic that happened back in the 19th century. There’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen again.
Now, I want to switch from the party rejecting the president, to the party protecting the president. I’m thinking about when you describe various impeachment efforts. Depressingly, the theme that I noticed is, really for a president to be impeached, or to face the credible threat of impeachment… For my readers since I’m going to be printing the transcripts, there have only been two presidents who were actually impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both of them were not convicted by the Senate.
There was a third president, Richard Nixon, who almost certainly would have been impeached, but resigned before that would happen. On all of those occasions or on other occasions when impeachment was a viable possibility, it’s because either (A) the congress was controlled by the opposing party or (B) there were enough people within the president’s own party who were essentially turning on him. Do you see that as having ominous implications for people who think Trump should be removed through legal methods?
Yes. Impeachment is a high bar. The founders wanted it that way. They wanted the voters to have a say in removing the president. They put an impeachment as a safety valve, but it was not a decision to be taken lightly. I don’t think they assumed that every other president would be impeached, and then certainly not that many of them would be removed, but it is there. It is a constitutional tool to use when the president appears unfit for office.
Looking at the cases of Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon — who I considered a president removed by impeachment, even though he was not formally impeached and removed, it’s clear that he resigned because of the almost certainty of impeachment and removal that was coming at him — Looking at those cases, there’s a few things that pop out to me. Number one, a president should not and has not been impeached merely because they are unpopular. It’s always because there’s a perception that they are fundamentally unfit for the office.
Matching that up with the language of the constitution, that means that opponents are trying to find evidence of treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors as amorphous as that is, but it’s got to be that they are actually harming the fabric of the constitution and the country itself. That in and of itself has never been enough. It’s never been enough to show that the president is unfit for office. You have to have a couple of other conditions for a conviction to actually take hold.
One of them has to be that opponents of the presidents see not only that the president is unfit, but they think that they are better off in the next election with this president gone, instead of this president staying in place and attracting all of that negativity. The case and point here is Andrew Johnson who was impeached in the 1860s. Clearly a bad man, clearly everything from bad policy to just bad personal behavior. Yet the Senate did not convict him even with a two-thirds majority of the opposing party.
One of the main reasons was they had their knight in shining armor ready for the next election. That’s General Ulysses S Grant. They were virtually guaranteed of winning the presidency in a few months. They did not want to have the wild card of removing this bad president, who Grant would certainly look good in comparison to, and put any kind of a wrench into that almost-certain machinery that was going to put Grant into office. So that’s one.
The other one is that, you have to be confident that as bad as this person is, that there’s not something worse coming. That’s when you start to look at the succession. Right now, it would be Vice President Mike Pence. Back to the Johnson case again, they didn’t have a vice president. We didn’t yet have a mechanism for putting in a vice president, when a vice president ascended to the presidency as Johnson did after Lincoln’s assassination.
Therefore, the next in line was going to be the Senate pro temp, which was crazy Ben Wade of Ohio, a man who nobody thought was suitable for the presidency. This is a guy who took out his squirrel rifle and was shooting at Union soldiers retreating from a battle to try to force them to go back in. Nobody wanted him to be president, and they said, “Andrew Johnson’s bad, but man, at least we know what we’ve got, and we don’t know what would happen with Ben Wade as president.”
You’ve got a multilevel game going on here. You’ve got the prospects for impeachment just based on calculating the crimes that have been committed. You’ve got the political role call trying to figure out who’s going to vote for conviction or not. Then you’ve got these other dynamics involving what’s going to come next. That makes it really hard to envision an impeachment and removal, absent something that is a blatant criminal act that affects the country in a way that Richard Nixon’s did.
In terms of calculating these issues for Trump, the way I see it is you have the fact Mike Pence would be the successor and how people might feel about that. From an objective standpoint, there are certainly grounds for investigating Trump and grounds for holding a trial. Obviously, until all of the evidence comes forward, we can’t know whether there would be grounds for a conviction, so you have that factor as well. Then the third factor is, as of January, the Democrats will be in control of the House, which makes impeachment politically possible, but the Republicans will be in control of the Senate, which makes conviction politically impossible. Plus Democrats don’t know if this will be a repeat of what happened with Bill Clinton, where impeaching him wound up boomeranging on the Republican Party.
All of those variables in mind: What are your thoughts on where all of the scandals with Trump will ultimately head?
Yes. The big variable that’s going to change things is whether the special counsel investigation — or frankly other things the president does that prompt more investigations in part by committees in the House of Representatives starting in January — whether that reveals actual crimes. Things that could be called high crimes and misdemeanors, because the Clinton case did show, you had a president who perjured himself and a president who interfered with an investigation that’s clear, but what was he doing it for?
He was doing it to protect against information coming out about a personal relationship. Yes, those were bad acts. People admitted that, but they said you don’t remove a president who has done it for that reason. You chastise the president. He’s impeached. That should be a rebuke, but you do not convict the president for that. Well, that’s not what we’re talking about with Donald Trump. Some of the things we’re talking about might include criminal conspiracy to reach office in the first place, or to cover up what happened to reach office in the first place. It might be a violation of campaign laws, it might be obstruction of justice directly related to an investigation of him and not for a personal affair. It might be for the act of getting into the presidency in the first place. Those are the kinds of things the founders did talk about, so if credible evidence on that comes out, that’s where I think the variable is different than the Clinton impeachment. During the Clinton impeachment, I mean, his popularity ratings went up during that process. It’s hard to imagine that happening if crimes beyond what we’ve already seen in the public sphere come out about Donald Trump.
Then I have to be cynical here for a moment. It’ll be a 53 to 47 majority for the Republicans in the Senate. I just don’t see it happening.
Right now, it is hard to envision. I went back and looked at some of the sources in 1973, in early 1974 and it is eerie the parallels, both from the president saying that the investigation into him as a witch hunt, but also from the president’s political allies on the hill, adding up those numbers and saying, “Yeah, they can investigate all they want, but the numbers just aren’t there to do a conviction on an impeachment charge.” Well, that turned pretty quickly. Suddenly you went from something that was seen as impossible to something that was seen as inevitable within a matter of weeks in 1974.
What were the numbers in Congress with Nixon during the congressional term when he would eventually wasn’t removed?
We had… if I recall right, we did have Democrats controlling, but it was not a two-thirds majority or even close to it in the Senate. Therefore, people were saying basically what you and I are saying right now, is we can’t conceive that there could be a conviction in the Senate, because there ain’t close to a two-thirds majority of the Democrats or of those opposed to the president, but by the time the Watergate tapes came out, you had Republicans who before had looked like a stalwart base, who had looked like the wall that would prevent anything from taking down Nixon. Suddenly that wall just evaporated as the tide turned, and then everybody said, “well, of course, it was inevitable they would turn on him.”
This is one of those funny things about major inflection points in politics where something that looks impossible one day looks inevitable just a few days later, but there has to be that change in that variable. The variable in Watergate was the airing of the tapes where Nixon could be heard obstructing justice. I don’t know what the equivalent of that is now. I know Jim Comey has said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” regarding his own discussions with Trump.
We don’t know what kinds of hardcore smoking gun evidence there might be. I do know that if there is anything around the potential criminal conspiracy or obstruction of justice that is similar to that smoking gun tape, Robert Mueller is going to find it because he’s got immense resources at his disposal on intelligence and law enforcement. That could be the variable that changes it in a way that you and I agree, it does not look likely at this point.
While I’m thinking of another variable too, which is Republican primary voters. While they were certainly loyal to Richard Nixon, they did not seem to be as fanatically devoted to him as many of Donald Trump’s supporters are to him. I’m wondering if maybe that could factor into this as well. Because my guess is that those Republicans who switched after the tapes were released did so because they thought ‘If I continue supporting this president, my own party will turn against me.’
Yeah. I’d like to see… I’d like to go back and read that more carefully. I think you’re onto something there. I think that is a dynamic, and maybe the primary dynamic, at that time. I know that some of the things that were said went beyond that. Whether this was justification and rationalization or whether this was true motive, I don’t know, but you had a lot of people saying, “Yes, we stand by Richard Nixon. We like his policies, this, this and this, but he has proven himself fundamentally unfit and we have to do what’s in the best interest of the country”. That’s a slightly different take on it than, “How am I going to benefit in the next political nomination and election cycle?”
How those intersect and how those play out will be hard, given the fact Donald Trump, unlike Richard Nixon, was not a lifelong Republican. He’s not somebody who has been a party stalwart for decades and decades. I think there could actually be a turn against Trump that is stronger than the turn against Nixon, that may not show up in the poll numbers right away. However, because you have to remember, a significant number of Republicans have left the party. There are people who no longer call themselves Republicans, even very prominent commentators and thinkers from George Will, Max Boot, and Bill Kristol, these are people who are struggling with their previous Republican identity because of the hijacking of the party by Donald Trump.
The poll numbers now reflect a slightly smaller Republican party, which appears to be tied to Donald Trump, but that long term feeling, Richard Nixon was a Republican his whole life and for decades had been in the public sphere as a Republican. That just isn’t true in this case.
I think you’re absolutely right. I think my personal sense is, in order for 20 Republican senators to vote to convict and remove, which is the number that will most likely need to be reached, it should mean that Republicans win the Mississippi Senate race, which I’m going to assume they will. I almost think it will have less to do with what can be proved and more to do with whether the economy is still strong and other fundamentals in terms of how people judge the success of the nation are still strong. Because if the average Republican voter still likes Trump and hates Democrats and hates Mueller, 20 Republicans flipping on him, I find to be very hard to imagine.
I agree with you. I find it very hard to imagine. I’ve also learned through many years as an intelligence analyst and also as an observer of affairs here, that it’s amazing how things can turn. I have low confidence in my predictions on this based on today’s affairs, because I just don’t know what’s going come out. I also know that there were people who were very, very supportive of Richard Nixon, almost violently supportive, of Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974, who as soon as the tide turned, basically just put their heads down for a minute and let the wave rush over.
They didn’t come out super strongly against Nixon. Some of them just basically stayed quiet for a little while and they were perfectly fine going forward. They actually survived. Once the wave went over, it was almost like a reset in many ways in American politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens here, that Republican voters quickly move on and if people say yes, something has come out that shows this guy needs to go, but we’re going to have a stronger party after it, that wave may actually clear some of that out. So hard to predict at this point.
Update 12/18: The Republican Party Doubles Down on Trump:
Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee will merge their field and fundraising programs into a joint outfit dubbed Trump Victory.