In contrast with Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, no chicanery was needed to ensnare Trump. He brought this on himself, says Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland
The trial of Donald Trump, which opens in earnest on Tuesday, is the third presidential impeachment in US history and the most legitimate. For the first time, an American president will face the ultimate sanction not because he walked into a legal trap set by his opponents, or because of some broader, underlying rift in society, but because of the actual high crimes and misdemeanors on the charge sheet. Legally, the Senate has never confronted a stronger case for the removal of a sitting president than the one it is about to hear.
Of course, none of this means that Trump is about to be removed. But it is worth bearing in mind, as you watch 53 Republican members of the Senate now remade as a jury, every senator having sworn an oath to do impartial justice according to the constitution and laws echo the vocabulary of the accused and blithely dismiss the whole business as a hoax or witch-hunt.
Theyre wrong because Trumps is the standout case in a category of notoriety that is already vanishingly small. Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached in effect, indicted by the US House of Representatives, back in 1868. No one would want to defend Johnson or his politics. He was a foul-mouthed, racist drunk, the accidental president whod only been vice-president for a few weeks when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, leaving him in the top job. Johnson was only ever meant to be a symbolic number two: the governor of Tennessee who until a year earlier had been a slave owner, hed been picked by Lincoln as a gesture of reconciliation towards the slave-owning south defeated in the civil war. With Lincoln dead, Johnson found himself facing a Congress determined to grant at least a modicum of rights to 4 million former slaves. Johnson was bent on thwarting that effort at every turn.
Still, you dont have to feel a shred of sympathy for Johnson to recognise that his foes on Capitol Hill set for him what the constitutional law expert, Noah Feldman, calls an impeachment trap. They passed a law compelling him to keep in post appointees of his predecessor including officials willing to grant basic liberties to newly freed black Americans. Congress even wrote into law that any violation would constitute a high misdemeanor, ensuring that such a violation would automatically count as an impeachable offence. So when Johnson sacked his secretary of war, he promptly walked right into the impeachment trap.
The circumstances for the second impeachee, Bill Clinton, were rather different, but he, too, could claim entrapment. Remember, he was asked under oath whether he had had a sexual relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. His inquisitors knew what he did not: that they had DNA evidence proving just such a relationship. Clinton denied it, lying under oath. He had walked into a perjury trap, and it was for that crime that he was tried in the Senate more than 20 years ago.
No such chicanery was necessary to ensnare Trump. Of his own volition and requiring no prodding, he made that fateful 25 July phone call to the president of Ukraine in which he pressured him to dig up dirt on Trumps political rival, Joe Biden, on pain of losing $400m in essential military aid or forfeiting a coveted meeting at the White House. That is as clear an abuse of power as it is possible to imagine, using the muscle of the US government for personal gain. It took no canny drafting of laws or sneaky questioning under oath. Unlike Johnson and Clinton, Trump did this all by himself.
Trump has no access to the hiding places where his predecessors in the presidential dock took refuge. He cannot claim, as Johnson could, that any violation of the law was on a narrow technicality. By way of confirmation, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office ruled on Thursday that the White House broke the law when it froze funding to Ukraine, cash whose release had been legally mandated by Congress.
As it happens, the USs founders did not require a formal or specific law to be broken for a president to be impeached. They conceived of high crimes and misdemeanors much more broadly: merely to break the public trust should merit removal. But as a matter of political reality, impeachment has tended to come down to a balder question: has a law been broken? And with Trump the answer could not be louder or clearer.
The Trump case is more straightforward than the others in another sense, too. The Johnson episode was all about race, about a nation emerging from the smoking ruins of a civil war fought over slavery. That argument was not over; Johnsons trial simply opened up a new front.
With Clinton, its tempting to see his impeachment as a battle in the gender wars, a precursor of #metoo, turning on issues of power imbalance and consent. More accurately, given that Clintons Republican prosecutors were hardly motivated by feminist outrage, it was a climax of a contest that had been raging since Clinton first ran for president, if not before: a culture war in which Clinton was cast as the embodiment of the moral permissiveness of the 1960s, dodging the draft and smoking dope (even if he didnt inhale). His impeachment was the culmination of a near-decade-long effort to suggest that Clintons character alone made him unfit for the White House and therefore an illegitimate president.
You could probably build an impeachment case against Trump that rested on either race or gender. On the former, his record of white supremacism is ample, dating back to the discrimination cases brought against him as a New York landlord in the 1970s, through to his proposed ban on all Muslims entering the US, to his baiting of African-American public figures and praising of neo-Nazis as very fine people. On gender, this is a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and who bragged of doing so. Similarly, there are those who see Trump, like Johnson or Clinton before him, as an essentially illegitimate occupant of the White House, not least because in 2016 he won 3m fewer votes than his defeated opponent.
And yet the actual impeachment case against Trump does not relate to, or depend on, any of that. You could strip all of that wider context away, and the charges against Trump would still stand. That is not true of Johnson or Clinton. This is a case like no other and Trump is a president like no other, says Adam Smith, professor of US political history at Oxford.
Perhaps the closest precedent is the president who quit rather than be impeached and removed. Like Trump, Richard Nixon was guilty of an abuse of power that went way beyond a technicality. Like Trump, Nixon stonewalled Congresss investigation of his crimes, though, as Feldman writes: Nixon engaged in far less obstruction than Trump. But unlike Trump, Nixon lived in a time when partisanship did not blind members of the House and Senate to their constitutional, even patriotic, duty. Trump is guiltier than his predecessors but hes also far, far luckier.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist