The theme of President Biden’s inaugural address was unity. Yet words mean nothing without action. To bridge divisions with one simple gesture, Biden should condemn the impeachment trial of his predecessor.
On this issue, Biden should take a page from other presidents who led during times of national disunity. In the early years of our republic, there was great hostility between the Federalists, who supported increased federal authority, and the anti-Federalists, who favored small, localized government.
When the nascent federal government imposed a tax on grain-based liquor to help pay off Revolutionary War debts, farmers — who tended to be Anti-Federalist and whose livelihoods depended on grain — believed they were being targeted. Their protests turned violent, and the federal government sent in militias to quell the insurrection.
Two men were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. President George Washington’s response? In the interest of promoting national unity and moving on from the incident, he pardoned the men.
In May 1865, one month after the Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson, through a proclamation of amnesty, pardoned hundreds of thousands of former Confederates of the crime of treason. While a controversial move then and now, this was the quickest way, as Johnson explained at the time, to “fully restore … respect for and attachment to the [federal] government” by the South. Regrettably, Johnson failed to couple this pardon with the strong action needed to protect the newly emancipated and safeguard their natural rights.
On Sept. 8, 1974, one month after Richard Nixon resigned as president amid the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes that he might have committed against the United States as president.
In a televised national address, Ford explained that he believed this pardon was in the best interests of the country. He stated that the public crucifixion of Nixon and his family “could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.” Ford declared:
My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it.
For placing national unity ahead of political self-interest, Ford paid a price. The unpopularity of the pardon is thought to be a key reason Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
In 2001, the Kennedy Library Foundation awarded Ford the Profile in Courage Award for his pardon of Nixon. In presenting the award, Sen. Ted Kennedy said history had proven Ford made the correct decision:
At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.
Carter also made an unpopular decision in the name of ending factionalism. On his first full day as president, Carter granted an unconditional pardon to hundreds of thousands of men who evaded the draft. Carter explained the pardon was necessary to “get the Vietnam war over with” and “heal the scars of divisiveness.”
By mentioning these pardons, I do not imply that President Trump bears criminal-level responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Nor do I suggest that a pardon can obviate an impeachment — it cannot. The point is that the corrosive, seething hatred directed at Trump will know no end unless and until President Biden speaks out against it, and that starts with denouncing the impeachment effort currently underway.
President Biden has taken the helm of another storm-tossed ship of state. Trump is now a private citizen, and this impeachment only serves to drive a wedge through the nation. Biden must use every means in his power to ensure domestic tranquility and restore unity.
At the first presidential debate, Biden proclaimed, “I am the Democratic Party.” If true, Biden has the political power, if not the constitutional authority, to quash the impeachment trial.
In “Federalist No. 74,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that there are critical moments in which the president alone can extend an olive branch and “restore the tranquility of the commonwealth,” but that if he does not timely do so, he will permanently “let slip the golden opportunity.”
So far, Biden has dithered on this. If Biden genuinely desires national unity, he must make it unmistakably clear, before it is too late, that Congress should shut and seal the book on impeachment trial once and for all.
Ameer Benno is a constitutional law attorney and former congressional candidate in the NY-04. Follow him at @AmeerBenno.