CHARLOTTE — Republican U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis are about to join a small but elite group: North Carolina senators who have voted in a presidential impeachment trial.
A Senate trial could take place as early as this month after the House voted Dec. 18 to impeach President Donald Trump, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has delayed sending over the two articles of impeachment.
Trump became the third president ever impeached after Democrats Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999.
While earlier impeachment proceedings have put N.C. senators in the national spotlight, only two have ever voted in an impeachment trial.
That’s because when the Raleigh-born Johnson was acquitted by a single vote on May 26, 1868, North Carolina was six weeks away from rejoining the Union following the Civil War. Therefore it had nobody in Congress.
North Carolina wasn’t readmitted until July 4, when it ratified the 14th Amendment that gave citizenship to former slaves. South Carolina was readmitted July 9.
In 1999 both states had senators for Clinton’s trial. The Senate considered two impeachment articles the House had passed the previous December: That Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was in his fifth and last term. A Clinton critic, he would vote for both articles of impeachment.
“There is certainly evidence fearfully suggesting that the Senate may ... fail to convict the President of charges of which he is obviously guilty,” Helms said in remarks entered into the Congressional Record.
“What else can be made of the behavior of many in the news media whose eyes are constantly on ratings instead of the survival of America?”
‘I have to vote to acquit’
Democrat John Edwards, elected in 1998, was three weeks into his term when Senate leaders tapped him for a big role.
Along with three Republicans, the Raleigh trial lawyer was one of three Democratic senators chosen by Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to handle depositions of Lewinsky and other witnesses. In a speech to the full Senate, Edwards said prosecutors had failed to prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“These things all lead me to the conclusion that however reprehensible the president’s conduct is, I have to vote to acquit on both articles of impeachment,” he told his colleagues.
Edwards also said Clinton “has shown a remarkable disrespect for his office, for the moral dimensions of leadership, for his friends, for his wife, for his precious daughter. It is breathtaking to me the level to which that disrespect has risen.”
His impeachment performance catapulted Edwards’s political career.
A year later he made Al Gore’s short list of vice presidential running mates. In 2004 he ran for president himself and ended up as Democratic nominee John Kerry’s running mate. He ran for president again in 2008 before flaming out amid tabloid headlines about his relationship with Rielle Hunter.
In opening the recent impeachment proceedings, Pelosi invoked the name of another North Carolinian: William Davie, a signer of the Constitution.
“As (Davie) warned, unless the Constitution contained an impeachment provision, a president might ‘Spare no efforts or means, whatever, to get himself re-elected’,” she said.
It’s unclear what role Burr and Tillis will play in a Senate trial, other than voting.
‘Sen. Sam’ and Watergate
In the 1970s, another N.C. senator played a major role in the near-impeachment of Republican President Richard Nixon.
Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin chaired the Watergate committee. For more than a year he and his committee oversaw testimony and revelations of secret White House tapes that gripped the nation. For more than a year, the folksy Morganton native helped explain the complicated narrative that resulted in a cover-up.
“Ervin played the role of being the story-teller,” said Appalachian State University historian Karl Campbell, author of “Senator Sam Ervin: Last Of The Founding Fathers.” “By Ervin playing that role and having that time, he was able to frame the questions and the meanings of the political crisis.”
In 1974, faced with imminent impeachment, Nixon resigned.
“(Ervin) definitely had come to the conclusion that Nixon was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors,” Campbell said. “He officially made up his mind when tapes came out that showed obstruction in the president’s voice.”
‘Is the president around?’One North Carolinian who had a bit role in the Nixon saga was Democrat Rufus Edmisten, who went on to serve as N.C. attorney general and secretary of state.
As an aide to Ervin, it was Edmisten who was sent to the White House in 1973 to subpoena the newly disclosed tapes. He was met at the front door by advisers.
“The president wouldn’t be around here, would he?’” Edmisten would later recall saying.
“You just missed him,” one adviser replied.
Edmisten, then 32, reached into his back pocket and pulled out a copy of the Constitution.
“While we’re at it,” he told the Nixon advisers, “you might want to take a look at this.”