Foreign Policy Has Always Been at the Heart of Impeachment

High Crimes From the Middle Ages to the Age of Trump

President Donald Trump in Burnsville, Minnesota, April 2019 Sarah Silbiger / The New York Times

Presidential impeachment in the United States has always seemed to be a domestic matter. President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about sexual misconduct. President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid certain impeachment in the wake of the Watergate scandal. And in 1868, the House of Representatives leveled 11 articles of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson for defying a Republican-led Congress and its positions on Reconstruction.

The current inquiry into President Donald Trump is different. Sometime in December, it is likely that a U.S. president will for the first time be impeached for misusing his foreign policy authority in the service of personal political interests. The evidence laid out in House Intelligence Committee hearings establishes that Trump conditioned the release of congressionally authorized military aid to Ukraine on an announcement by the Ukrainian government that it would conduct investigations of Trump’s political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and of the baseless allegation that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But it should not be surprising that dealings abroad could precipitate impeachment. Foreign affairs have often been at the heart of impeachment, from the origins of the practice in medieval England through its adoption by the United States. The history of impeachment over the centuries shows an abiding awareness of how vulnerable the practice of foreign policy is to the misconduct of its makers. The fact that the Senate will probably not remove Trump from office is not a measure of the ineffectiveness of impeachment as a tool but, instead, a reflection of the particular and peculiar transformations in the political culture of the United States that insulate the president from the consequences of his misconduct.


When the framers of the U.S. Constitution included a provision that presidents and other “civil officers” may be impeached for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” they were drawing on British parliamentary practice that was, in 1787, already centuries old.

The English Parliament invented impeachment in 1376 as a tool through

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