The Trump Trial Wouldn’t Have Been Possible Without This ImpeachmentRoundup
tags: impeachment, Ulysses S. Grant, William Belknap
What is the purpose of impeachment? Is it remedial — a political measure designed to protect the country from the actions of corrupt officials and prevent them from doing future harm? Or is it punitive — a judicial measure designed only to punish current officeholders by stripping them of office?
Whether in good faith or in convenience, that question has been pushed to the center of the second impeachment of Donald Trump. The lines are already drawn and they surprise no one. In a recent failed effort aimed at blocking the proceedings, Senator Rand Paul made clear that he thinks impeachment is punitive and declared any trial unfair and unnecessary because Mr. Trump no longer holds office and thus cannot be removed.
The House managers, in their final brief of Feb. 2, called that argument wrong and dangerous. In support of their position, they cite the impeachment trial of William Belknap in 1876. Belknap was the secretary of war in the Republican administration of President Ulysses Grant. There has been an effort in recent years to rehabilitate the reputation of the Grant administration, but the Belknap case illustrates how tawdry and corrupt the government was.
Belknap took bribes in a complicated scheme involving the appointment of the trader at Fort Sill in Indian Territory. When in 1876 the arrangement was discovered and the House began impeachment proceedings, Belknap rushed to the White House and resigned moments before the House voted to impeach him. The House impeached him anyway.
Only three senators found Belknap not guilty of the charges, but the Senate failed to convict him because many senators claimed they lacked jurisdiction. In their arguments about jurisdiction, both modern Republican senators and Belknap’s lawyers stressed the status of the accused as a private citizen. His lawyers argued that the House could not impeach a private citizen and thus the Senate could not try him. The House managers countered that what mattered was not whether Belknap held office when impeached, but whether he held office when the alleged offenses took place.
On the questions of precedent, Belknap’s lawyers did not claim that the Senate could not try a private citizen — the claim of Republicans today. Rather, they argued that Belknap could not be tried because he had been a private citizen — if only by minutes — when the House impeached him. It was his status at the moment of impeachment that mattered.
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