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A Look Back At The First Presidential Impeachment In the U.S.


We've talked on this program with people who worked on President Clinton's impeachment and President Nixon's, trying to gain insight into the impeachment of President Trump. Well, our next guest argues that the best historical comparison is to a presidential impeachment that took place 150 years ago against Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Manisha Sinha is a history professor at the University of Connecticut.


MANISHA SINHA: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to the impeachment itself, tell us about the man. Who was Andrew Johnson?

SINHA: So Andrew Johnson was a unionist, actually, during the Civil War, from Tennessee. So because of that, he was rewarded by being made the military governor of Tennessee by Lincoln during the Civil War and then, finally, was Lincoln's vice president.

SHAPIRO: You describe Johnson as one of the most reviled presidents in American history, but that's not enough to get someone impeached. So why did impeachment proceedings ultimately begin against him?

SINHA: The reason why he was impeached was mainly his racist objections to black citizenship and to this whole program of Reconstruction, which was to establish an interracial democracy in the South. So Congress passes a law called the Tenure of Office Act that prevents Johnson from firing union army officers and from firing Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who were really overseeing this process. And Johnson violates it by firing Stanton, even though he had earlier assured Republicans that he would not do that.

SHAPIRO: So this is about presidential overreach, executive abuse of power.

SINHA: Absolutely. It was presidential overreach and, as they say very clearly in the articles of impeachment, that he was encroaching on congressional power and had actually disrespected Congress, had obstructed Congress, which is also one of the articles of impeachment that was laid out yesterday against Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: So I was going to ask what other parallels you see here when you read the articles of impeachment from 150 years ago and from yesterday.

SINHA: Both impeachments have a smoking gun. For Johnson, it was violation of the Tenure of Office Act. For Trump, it was his phone call with the Ukrainian president. But both presidents also had a pattern of seeming to violate national interests, national ideals, playing on racial divisions in the country. I think in that way, they are both somewhat similar.

SHAPIRO: In last week's House Judiciary Committee hearing, another parallel between the Trump and Johnson impeachment came up. It was legal expert Jonathan Turley who said this.


JONATHAN TURLEY: I believe that this is much like the Johnson impeachment. It's manufactured until you build a record. I'm not saying you can't build a record, but you can't do it like this.

SHAPIRO: Whether or not you agree that the record for the Trump administration is insufficient, do you think it's true that the record with the Johnson impeachment was kind of manufactured and ad hoc?

SINHA: I wouldn't agree that it was manufactured because there were 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson, and the first nine very clearly pointed to the so-called smoking gun, which was violation of the Tenure of Office Act. One could see that as Congress sort of encroaching on executive privilege. But that, in fact, was in response to Johnson's obstructionism and his attempt to disregard federal law when it came to Reconstruction because he was turning a blind eye to racial terror, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, etc.

SHAPIRO: If, as expected, the Trump impeachment moves on to a trial in the Senate, what would you look for to see whether these parallels continue with Johnson?

SINHA: Well, that's where the parallel will break down. It's quite clear that the Republican Party today is lock-step-and-barrel (ph) behind Trump and that no matter what happens, they are not going to vote to convict him. And since they do have a slight majority in the Senate, it seems conviction is unlikely. But I do think that the entire process is important to make sure that presidents don't think that they are above the law and that we don't completely give up on checks and balances, separation of powers that have been put into place by the founders of the American republic.

SHAPIRO: That's history Professor Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut.

Thanks for speaking with us.

SINHA: Thank you for having me, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.