AUGUSTA, Maine — Congress has never removed a president from office, but it has begun the impeachment process three times, and since the first trial 151 years ago, there has been one constant — party-bucking votes from members of Maine’s delegation.
President Donald Trump could be the fourth president to face those proceedings after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced an impeachment inquiry Tuesday. The House of Representatives would have to draft articles of impeachment and approve them before sending the matter to a Republican-led Senate that would vote to remove the president.
Two presidents — Bill Clinton in 1999 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 — have been impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal in 1974 after a House panel advanced articles of impeachment that seemed certain to succeed.
Mainers had high-profile roles in each of them. Here’s how they voted during some of the country’s most trying political times.
Johnson survived by a single vote with help from a Maine senator. President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, ran for re-election during the Civil War in 1864 on a unity ticket that dumped Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for unionist Democrat Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln when he was assassinated in 1865.
The new president was lenient on southern states after the war, arguing they should be quickly assimilated back into the union while guaranteeing no political rights for freedmen. Radical Republicans advocated civil rights without compromise. That faction led impeachment proceedings in 1868, after Johnson fired a secretary of war they had passed a law to protect.
Maine, which staunchly backed Lincoln in both of his elections, had an all-Republican congressional delegation at the time. Its five representatives — including future Sen. James Blaine — backed impeachment. Rep. Sidney Perham said on the floor proponents were “asking to be relieved from the rule of a bad man, accidentally in the presidential chair.”
The House advanced 11 articles to the Senate. One of Maine’s senators, Lot Morrill, was a Radical Republican. The other, William Pitt Fessenden was an opponent of slavery but had more moderate instincts. Morrill voted to remove Johnson.
Fessenden opposed removal and helped round up enough Republicans to leave the president in office by just a one-vote margin, arguing that impeachment and removal should be used only in “extreme cases” and should be “free from the taint of party.”
After the vote, Fessenden lamented in a letter “gross attacks made upon me” by Republican newspapers, but believed “time will set all things even.” A Republican group in Boston invited him to a dinner there saying while it disagreed with him, it admired his “courage and conscientiousness under circumstances of peculiar difficulty.” He died the following year.
A freshman congressman from Maine was one of only seven Republicans who voted to impeach Nixon. U.S. Rep. William Cohen was a 33-year-old lawyer in his first term as a Republican representing Maine’s 2nd District when he was tasked with investigating the Watergate scandal as a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the summer of 1974.
Cohen told C-SPAN in 2014 he was under heavy “psychological pressure” around the vote. There was a meeting with Nixon and fellow Republicans before the committee vote on where the president told members of his party he “may be a son of a bitch, but I’m your son of a bitch.”
Cohen was one of seven Republicans on the committee who voted to impeach Nixon anyway, presenting evidence that Nixon and a top aide knew of his campaign’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the president knew an aide committed perjury while telling the committee he did not intend to pass personal judgment on Nixon.
“But even though we’re not without blemishes or human frailties, that must not prevent from meeting up our responsibilities to pass judgment on the conduct of our elected leaders,” he said.
He said in 2014 he was “preparing to lose” his seat over after the vote based on the volume of hate mail from Republicans. Susan Collins, who was then a 21-year-old intern for Cohen remembered opening many of those letters in a 1997 Bangor Daily News interview. But Cohen won election to the Senate in 1978. He was succeeded by Collins in 1996.
Maine’s two Republican senators voted to acquit Clinton while harshly chastising his behavior. Collins would be involved in the next impeachment after the Republican-led House advanced articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton spurred by a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Democrat and an investigation that led to public knowledge of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which Clinton lied about.
The freshman Collins and Maine’s senior Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, were among the four Republicans who voted against both articles of impeachment in 1999. Snowe said the presidency was “sullied” by Clinton, but his behavior didn’t reach the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Collins said Clinton had “written a shameful and permanent chapter” of history, which she said would “provide the ultimate punishment.” But she made a Fessenden-like argument in saying removal should only come when a president “injures the fabric of democracy.”
“As much as it troubles me to acquit this president, I cannot do otherwise and remain true to my role as a senator,” she said.