As we head into fall here in America, the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump has captured our attention. The coming months will see a great deal of turmoil in Congress, in the White House and in our own living rooms as this effort — which has happened before in our history — plays out.
We asked 1st District Congressman Lee Zeldin to write a guest column on his views about the potential impeachment of a president Mr. Zeldin has loyally served and aggressively defended no matter the accusations against him. We also asked one of his Democratic opponents, Perry Gershon, to write a similar column. At press time, only Mr. Gershon had responded.
Over the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, the framers of our Constitution wrestled with the issue of impeachment. Should there be a specific item in the Constitution spelling out when a federal official can be tried, convicted and removed from office? They appear to have struggled to reach agreement on whether to include such a clause and what exactly it would say.
The legal and cultural backdrop to the lives of the men writing the Constitution was, of course, England. Six long and very bloody years of revolution had cast off the mother country. Americans were now trying to write the code that would govern the new nation and guide its path into the future based on the rule of law and the uniquely American ideal that no one was above it.
England had a centuries-old history of kings and others being accused of high crimes and having their heads chopped off. One monarch was tortured and murdered with a red-hot poker. That summer, the Americans wanted to chart a different course for their new homeland.
But they wanted to ensure that a high federal official could be legally removed by a process and not a mob, and for specific reasons. Jump ahead two years, to the eruption of the French Revolution in 1789, when the founders would be reminded how violent street mobs can be when they are determined to overturn a society. Civil war is not something to wish for.
The framers went back and forth for weeks, refining the impeachment language. The House would hold the trial; two-thirds of the Senate would be needed for a conviction. Virginia’s George Mason added the words “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Alexander Hamilton — of current Broadway fame — felt strongly that one of the high crimes should be about foreign meddling, something he called “the desire of foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Mason said he feared a future American president might “betray his trust to foreign powers.”
The issue of just what constituted treason against the United States came up a few years later. Aaron Burr — the third vice president of the United States, who shot Hamilton to death in 1804 — was tried for treason in 1807 and acquitted. His lawyer at trial was Cutchogue-born John Wickham, then a prominent attorney in Richmond, Va.
The impeachment effort against Mr. Trump will likely focus on whether the president’s conversations with the president of Ukraine, in which he asked for a “favor” — an investigation in that country of former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter — falls within the framework of a high crime and misdemeanor.
At the time in July when Mr. Trump asked for this favor, he had intentionally held up nearly $500 million in critical aid to Ukraine, which needed it to counter pro-Russian rebels in the eastern part of the country. Because Mr. Biden was, at that time, leading the polls among Democrats running against President Trump, the request to his Ukrainian counterpart was personal.
What would the framers think of this moment in our history? The next few months will be consequential. In the end, the rule of law must win out.