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Joseph Ellis: Every president since Washington has been accused of misconduct, but Trump's is off the chart

Updated 9:31 AM ET, Sun December 15, 2019

Editor's Note: Joseph J. Ellis is an American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for "Founding Brothers." He is the author of "American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us." The views expressed here are the author's. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - In 1974, at the height of the Watergate investigation of President Richard Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee asked Yale historian C. Vann Woodward to prepare a comprehensive account of misconduct by all American presidents from George Washington to Lyndon Johnson. Woodward assembled a star-studded team of American historians who proceeded to deliver a book-length report in record time. Entitled "Response of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct," it provided the most comprehensive account of presidential misdeeds ever assembled. The goal was to recover the historical context within which Nixon's behavior could be most fairly and fully assessed.

But Nixon's unexpected decision to resign from office before his case went to the Senate rendered the Woodward report irrelevant. And it has languished in some archival version of oblivion ever since. Now, suddenly, the impeachment of President Donald Trump has rendered the report relevant. Fortuitously, a new edition, entitled "Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today" with updated chapters on American presidents from Nixon to Obama has been published by The New Press.

"Presidential Misconduct" is a definitive account of America's longstanding love/hate affair with the office of the Presidency. The book's most jarring revelation is that every President from George Washington onward has been accused of corruption, abuse of power or some violation of his oath of office. The only exception is William Henry Harrison, who died four weeks after taking office.

In the earliest years, when the revolutionary embers were still warm, any robust exercise of executive power was condemned as monarchy, a second coming of George III. Even Washington was not immune to the charges, bolstered by the publication of forged documents purporting to show that he had been a covert British agent throughout the war for independence, an early example of "fake news." John Adams was falsely accused of plotting to crown his son, John Quincy, as his successor.

This obsessive fear of monarchy is worth noting. (It will come up later.) There were many issues on which the founders did not agree, but they all shared the deep conviction that unlimited executive power was incompatible with republican government.

Even though every president has been fairly or falsely accused of misconduct, the historical record also shows that impeachment is extremely rare. The dominant pattern is for critics to walk up to the impeachment line, but then turn around. (Andrew Jackson is the only president to request his own impeachment, demanding a trial to clear his name after he was censured by Congress.) Only four of the 45 American Presidents have been impeached or had articles of impeachment drawn up against them: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump.

It is a very small club for two reasons. First, while the framers of the Constitution wanted to provide a way to remove Presidents, they deliberately made it hard to do so because they wanted impeachment to be a rare occasion. It has become clear over the years that, unless the opposition party controls both branches of Congress, impeaching and removing a president from office is something virtually impossible to achieve. Indeed, conviction by two-thirds of the Senate has never happened, though Nixon probably avoided that fate by resigning.

Second, the Presidency is the only major elective office in the three branches of government with a limited term. For most of American history the two-term limit was a hallowed tradition established by Washington. The only exception was Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected for a third and even fourth term during wartime. (The 22nd Amendment codified the traditional two-term limit in 1951.) As a result, there is enormous pressure to defer a judgment on presidential misbehavior to the voters in the next election or to wait until a second term expires. Impeachments are often threatened, but only seem to happen once a century.

That pattern appears to be speeding up. In the last half-century there have been three impeachment investigations (Nixon, 1974; Clinton, 1998; Trump, 2019). The media landscape has evolved into a 24/7 news cycle; the internet has created a communication revolution of unfiltered political opinion; the Republican Party has led the way in weaponizing partisan tactics in a perpetual campaign culture; unprecedented amounts of money have flowed into a new political battlefield. It's too early to tell, but there is reason to suspect we are entering a new political chapter in which every newly-elected president can expect an unprecedented level of scrutiny and, if his or her party does not control both houses of Congress, the political machinery for impeachment investigation is likely to be constructed the day after inauguration.

In this new "Survivor"-like environment the kind of indiscretions and low-level corruption chronicled in "Misconduct" become potentially fatal blunders. Few of the first five "founding presidents" would have survived the scrutiny and none of them would have been willing to pursue the office; they would have regarded the behavior required as acts of prostitution.

The essays in "Misconduct" provide some welcomed perspective, even a few moments of comic relief, from this quasi-maniacal political atmosphere: John Quincy Adams protesting the effort to impeach James Madison, observing that "it was like asking a blooming virgin to exhibit herself before the multitudes." Andrew Jackson asking Congress what he should so with a gift of two horses and a lion from the emperor of Morocco; defenders of James Buchanan coining the term "witch hunt," to describe the investigation of his misconduct; Warren Harding, swimming in a pool of corruption within his cabinet, complaining that "I can take care of my enemies alright, but my friends, my god-damned friends...they're the ones who keep me walking the floor nights."

Given our location amidst the swirl of the Trump impeachment, the urge to find precedents in the three past impeachments described in "Misconduct" is natural, perhaps inevitable. My own judgment -- readers are hereby encouraged to embrace their own — is that the seriousness of the charges against Trump is unprecedented. The blundered burglary at Watergate and Clinton's personal flair for sexual misconduct pale in comparison with the alleged threat that Trump's behavior poses to the balance of power enshrined in the Constitution.

That said, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson strikes me as the most instructive precedent. Perhaps I am unduly swayed in that direction by the fact that the essay on the Johnson impeachment was written by William McFeely, a longstanding friend, who has just passed away. But consider the following connection.

Johnson was impeached on a minor infraction, violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which was probably illegal, that prohibited him from firing members of his cabinet. The true charge against Johnson was that he opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments and the agenda of the Radical Republicans to enfranchise the emancipated slaves. Johnson preferred what he called Restoration to Reconstruction, welcoming the white citizenry in the South back into the Union at the expense of the freed blacks. At issue was nothing less than the true meaning of the Civil War.

Donald Trump is being impeached on two charges of misbehavior during his dealings with Ukraine. The Judiciary Committee in the House has deliberately kept the charges within the narrow range of the Ukraine fiasco. The real charge against Trump -- I warned you this was coming -- is that his entire presidency has been conducted on the belief that he stands above the law, is an elected monarch. At issue is nothing less than preservation of the republican framework of the Constitution. Also unsaid is the "all roads lead to Putin" theory which, if exposed in his still unavailable tax returns, would constitute grounds for treason.

The real agenda never rose to the surface in the Johnson trial. Whether it will in the Trump trial in the Senate remains an open question that should compel our fullest attention. In the end, then, the essays in "Misconduct" do not provide answers, but they do help us know what to look for.

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