Teaching Impeachment in the Trump Era

The impeachment of Donald J. Trump offers teachers a unique opportunity to guide students through the process in a real-world exercise playing out in front of their eyes.

Real-World Civics:
Donald John Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 18, 2019. The Democratic majority passed two articles of impeachment against the 45th President of the United States: (1) abuse of power, and (2) obstruction of Congress.

Those articles were walked from the House chambers to the Senate chambers by the seven Democratic House Managers on the afternoon of January 15, 2020. The following day, Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in to oversee the impeachment trial and the 100 Senators were sworn in as the jury. 

In most years of teaching government or civics, public school teachers might struggle to make the concept of impeachment meaningful - especially since it was only undertaken in 1868 and 1998. 

However, this year's students were met with a special civics lesson - impeachment in real time. Through the power of social media and massive amounts of traditional media coverage, teachers have a treasure trove of source material to teach this important topic.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Impeachment is a wholly political process, and our Founding Fathers warned us about one political party using it for political gain. In Federalist #65, Alexander Hamilton said, "The prosecution of (impeachment)...will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or (harmful) to the accused." In 2020, this means that most Republicans see impeachment as a "witch hunt," while most Democrats see it as a legitimate process.

Donald Trump has been setting the stage of this ideological split since he rode down the golden escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy in 2015. On that day he said Mexico is sending us their drugs, their crime, and their rapists. He constantly calls the media "fake news," and says that Article II of the US Constitution allows him to do whatever he wants (even shooting someone in the middle of 5th Avenue). 

Article II, Section I, actually says, "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America..." 

Ironically, Article II, Section IV, also says, "The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has reminded the POTUS (President of the United States) that Article II does not, in fact, allow him to do whatever he wants. And during the summer of 2019, a possible scandal came to light that would ultimately lead to Trump's impeachment. 

On August 12, 2019, a whistleblower from the US Intelligence community filed a complaint with the intelligence inspector general. The complaint details a July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

In the summary transcript of that phone call (which was voluntarily released by the White House), we learned that Trump asked Zelensky to "do us a favor" by announcing an investigation into Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son. Many saw this as Trump asking a foreign government to intervene in the 2020 election since Joe Biden was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination at the time. In exchange for this announcement, Zelensky would receive a coveted White House meeting with Trump and would receive the nearly $400 million in military aid that was authorized by Congress but illegally frozen by Trump.

In a 1787 letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Adams warned of foreign interference when he wrote, "You are apprehensive of foreign Interference, Intrigue, Influence. So am I." In his farewell address, Washington added that party passion, "opens the door to foreign influence and corruption..." Taken together, you can see how foreign influence has been an American concern going back more than 200 years.

The weeks that followed were contentious as we saw closed-door hearings, heard testimony from dozens of key figures, and witnessed depositions by the House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee (led by California Representative Adam Schiff) and Judicial Committee (led by New York Representative Jerry Nadler). Although Republican members of the Judicial and Intelligence Committees were allowed to be in these depositions and were able to ask questions, many in the GOP claimed that the process was unfair. 

Source: Star Tribune

We experienced weeks of televised hearings, where GOP Congressmen and women shared their distain for the process and Democrats tried to convince the American people of Trump's guilt. Subpoenaed witnesses refused to testify; the White House refused to turn over subpoenaed documents; and Pelosi refused to slow down or wait for the courts to require these people to show up or documents to be turned over.

Two articles of impeachment were eventually passed by the House of Representatives (on an almost entirely partisan vote), and we teachers now have a robust opportunity to bring civics to life in our classrooms and explain the process in real time. 

The Struggle (initially)

One of the biggest struggles we face when trying to teach impeachment is party politics. George Washington said in his famous farewell address in 1796, "The alternate domination of one (political party) over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge...is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads...men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."

In this statement, Washington references the very situation America finds itself in during the Trump presidency. Both political parties are vengeful toward one another. We have half the electorate that is, in fact, seeking the security of a president with near-absolute power. And we have a POTUS who was seeking to elevate himself and his personal causes without regard for the public. 

But...not everyone believes this to be true. Some truly, honestly believe that the media only spreads "fake news" and that Trump can do no wrong. Many of my students, when asked about Trump or impeachment, simply regurgitate what they hear their parents say. Some blame Hillary and the Democrats. Some have no clue. Some don't care.

So, how then do we teach the concepts of impeachment in such a hyper-partisan time? How do we engage students who have either no opinion or no desire to learn about a boring topic? 

We show it happening in real time!

The Strategy

The most important part of teaching impeachment is to keep it based on facts. The facts of impeachment are found in the US Constitution and in the historical record. According to the Constitution:

  • Article I, Section II: "The House of Representatives shall...have the sole Power of Impeachment."
  • Article I, Section III: "The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments...When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present."
  • Article II, Section II: [The President] ... "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

The Struggle (currently)

Once the House passed impeachment articles against Trump, Speaker Pelosi decided to hold the articles and refused to send them to the Senate for nearly a month. During that time, Senate and House Republicans cried foul against Pelosi.

Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader of the Senate, announced that he was working hand-in-glove with White House counsel, and that he expected Trump to be exonerated in a short trial. Democrats claimed that McConnell was corrupted and had already made up his mind before the Senate trial began.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune

Lindsey Graham, who was a House Manager in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and is now a sitting US Senator, said that Trump would NOT be found guilty. Again, the Left decried this as undemocratic.

Donald Trump continued to claim impeachment is a "hoax" and a "witch hunt" even as his trial begins in the US Senate. He repeatedly said that he expects Senate Republicans to exonerate him, and even suggested that they dismiss the charges against him and hold no trial whatsoever. 

As a classroom teacher, the statements made by McConnell, Graham, and Trump are challenging. Students reiterate these comments and many think the impeachment process is stupid, partisan, and unnecessary. 

So again, we stick to the facts and we continue to advocate for the US Constitution. This is such an important Constitutional process playing out in real time on social media, websites, and television screens across the country and the globe. Real implications are on the line and the future direction of our country is at stake. Students SHOULD care, and it's my job to help them understand why.

This is only the third time in American history that a sitting President has been impeached...but the second time in the last 20 years. Hopefully our politicians will learn the lessons presenting themselves in the impeachment of Donald J. Trump. Hopefully we won't have to live through the process again in our lifetimes. Hopefully my students will understand that this is history in the making.

Josh DeLozier

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