As Mayorkas faces impeachment vote, a look back at only other secretary to be charged by House

Secretary of War William Belknap was accused of corruption.

February 2, 2024, 6:03 AM

An early-Wednesday House vote brought Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas one step closer to a historic impeachment on accusations of willful and systemic refusal to comply with the law" and "breach of public trust, which he denies as "baseless."

If a majority of the full House approves either of those two articles of impeachment -- Republicans have said to expect a vote next week -- Mayorkas would become only the second Cabinet member ever to be impeached, with the only other case being nearly 150 years ago.

The previous impeachment, as detailed in findings from archival records and research, occurred during then-President Ulysses Grant's administration, which is remembered as being plagued by scandal.

Secretary of War William Belknap faced corruption accusations in connection to military trading posts.

Belknap, a Civil War general, had been in the Cabinet for more than six years and was famous for his lavish parties during the Gilded Age. His lifestyle, which he supposedly supported with his government salary, raised many questions.

The House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department dug up some answers.

The evidence went back to 1870, when Belknap's wife promised businessman Caleb Marsh a lucrative military trading post in what is now Oklahoma. Finding that there was already a trader in the post, Marsh struck a deal with him: The trader would keep the post if he made quarterly payments to Marsh, who would then split the payments with Belknap's wife and, later, the secretary himself.

PHOTO: In this file photo taken between 1870 and 1880, Ulysses S. Grant is seen posing for a portrait.
In this file photo taken between 1870 and 1880, Ulysses S. Grant is seen posing for a portrait.
Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, FILE

Marsh was called to testify in front of the investigating committee, and he relayed all of the details of the deal. The committee's findings prompted a unanimous vote for Belknap's impeachment -- which then followed with one nuance.

Right before the chair was scheduled to announce the impeachment intent in the House in 1876, Belknap rushed to the White House, handed in a resignation letter to Grant and "burst into tears," according to the Senate Historical Office, thus trying to avoid the impeachment as a private citizen.

The House soon received the acceptance letter from Grant, which didn't stop them.

The punishment for a convicted impeached official is removal from the office and, potentially, prevention from holding a government office again. However, Belknap was already out of the office. After a lengthy debate, the House decided that his resignation shouldn't prevent their push for accountability, so they went ahead with the announcement and kept the investigation going.

"It was not only to remove Belknap and prevent him from serving in the future but also as to give the administration the black eye," said John Reeves, author of "Soldier of Destiny: Slavery, Secession, and the Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant."

Lawmakers were piqued by "all of this corruption they saw that they felt was such a big part of the Grant administration," Reeves said.

He said there was a parallel between the long-ago impeachment of Belknap and the articles against Mayorkas: the general intent to injure the administration.

"It's an attempt to embarrass the administration and put pressure on the administration," he said. "With the Belknap case, the Committee [on Expenditures] into the War Department started out as just a kind of a committee investigating suspicion of irregularities."

It wasn't until Caleb Marsh's testimony that they nailed Belknap down, he said.

PHOTO: In this file photo taken between 1855 and 1865, Gen. William Belknap is seen posing for a portrait.
In this file photo taken between 1855 and 1865, Gen. William Belknap is seen posing for a portrait.
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images, FILE

In April 1876, the Senate received five impeachment articles and started a trial with more than 40 witnesses. Senators spent the first weeks of the trial dealing with the unsuccessful pushback from Belknap and his counsel on whether the Senate had jurisdiction over the case as the respondent was no longer in office.

After settling the question, the majority of the Senate voted "guilty" on all five articles -- yet they were short of the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Belknap.

As such, Belknap was then acquitted and never prosecuted again. Many of those who voted "not guilty" did so because they believed the Senate had no jurisdiction in the case.

The articles were based on bribery accusations, which is outlined as a bar for impeachment in the U.S. Constitution, along with treason and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Mayorkas, on the other hand, is facing impeachment articles related to his handling of immigration and the southern border.

"In the case of Belknap, it was very clear that he was committing fraud against the United States government," Reeves said. In Mayrokas' case, though, "I don't really see what the crime is right now," Reeves said. "That's to be determined."