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William Belknap footnote becomes touchstone in Rod Rosenstein impeachment case

August 3, 2018

Charged with bribery in 1876, Secretary of War William W. Belknap became a historical footnote who’s getting a little more headline attention today.

Impeached by the House of Representatives, the lawyer and former Union soldier is the last executive branch official other than a president to face an impeachment. The trial, which included testimony from Gen. George Custer just months before his fatal battle at Little Bighorn, captured the nation’s imagination before Mr. Belknap was acquitted by the Senate.

The largely forgotten case has fresh relevance in the wake of last week’s push by conservative House lawmakers to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom they accuse of withholding critical information from Congress about Justice Department’s probe into Russian election meddling and Hillary Clinton’s secret emails.

Led by Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, the move against Mr. Rosenstein looks unlikely to force even a full floor vote on the effort to impeach the Department of Justice’s second-in-command. But just the effort has stirred up a political firestorm on Capitol Hill.

Opposed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, Mr. Meadows and his allies are considering seeking less harsh contempt vote if the requested Justice Department documents are not handed over when House members return from their summer recess.

The Belknap impeachment case blended a host of controversial issues, including the War Department’s conduct of Indian wars, gold discoveries in the Black Hills in South Dakota and Wyoming, and charges that Mr. Belknap secretly sold land in a subsequent gold rush.

The evidence against Mr. Belknap was considered so strong that he offered President Ulysses S. Grant his resignation, hoping that the House would then not move to impeach a private citizen. It did anyway, in a unanimous vote on the same day he resigned.

The Senate, however, ultimately voted against convicting Mr. Belknap because they feared they would overstep their authority in pursuit of a private citizen. A majority of senators voted to find him guilty, but the vote fell short of the two-thirds majority set forth by the Constitution for impeachment cases.

Impeachment is procedurally unique because it can be brought to the House floor for consideration without the support of House leadership. This means the conservative Freedom Caucus could have bypassed Mr. Ryan to force a vote.

Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, noted the procedural issues and political considerations in play in the Rosenstein case.

“While many conservative Republicans may like to take such a vote,” he wrote in an essay on legislativeprocedure.com, “it could create a dilemma for vulnerable Republicans, who may prefer not to consider the issue rather than imperiling their re-election by having to choose between upsetting their conservative base and angering swing voters who may be opposed to an impeaching Rosenstein.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has his own problems both with President Trump and restive Republicans in Congress, has strongly defended his deputy, who is overseeing the work of special counsel Robert Mueller and his team in the Russia-meddling probe.

The impeachment issue also lingers behind the scenes in the race to replace Mr. Ryan, who will retire next year.

When House conservatives lined up behind Mr. Meadows last week they were joined by Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican. Mr. Scalise is seen as a major contender for Mr. Ryan’s job.

But the other top candidate, House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, did not respond to questions on the issue.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, who co-sponsored the resolution and co-founded the Freedom Caucus, announced he would enter the race to succeed Mr. Ryan.

Both the Belknap and Rosenstein cases underscore the ambiguity of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard for impeachment laid out by the Constitution. Bribery is explicitly listed as an impeachable offense, but beyond that the definitions have been largely left to lawmakers.

“In terms of impeachment, what exactly constitutes a ‘high crime’ or ‘misdemeanor’ is always open to interpretation,” Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, said in an interview. “But what is very clear is that partisan politics always plays a role, especially in the threat of impeachment at the executive level.”

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