Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states that:
“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."
Meanwhile, Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 grants Congress the power to “impeach" presidents and other federal government officials when they suspect them of wrongdoing:
"The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present."
The Framers borrowed the impeachment process used in the United States from England, where the House of Commons can impeach government officials and the House of Lords chooses whether to convict or acquit. Similarly, members of the House of Representatives hold power to draw up articles of impeachment, and the Senate decides whether to acquit or convict. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict before a person can be removed from office or face other consequences. James Madison argued for including an impeachment process in the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, calling it an “indispensable" check on incompetent leaders.
Impeachment is a potent tool for Congress that can have a serious impact. So, it's no surprise that Congress has only impeached a handful of United States presidents and convicted none. The impeachment of a president is the most high-profile example of the process, but Congress may impeach other members of the executive branch and federal judges as well.
Because the framers of the Constitution did not define what “High Crimes and Misdemeanors" meant, it's up to Congress and the Supreme Court to interpret. Impeachable offenses have ranged from disagreeing with Congress to inciting an insurrection against the government. There have been four cases of impeachment among U.S. presidents, although none resulted in removal from office.
The first American president impeached was Andrew Johson. Johnson was vice president during Abraham Lincoln's second term. Lincoln selected Johnson, a southern Democrat who chose to stay with the Union during the Civil War, to project a message of national unity. When Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson became president.
After he became president, Johnson quickly came into conflict with Radical Republicans in Congress over the approach to reconstruction. Johnson favored a more lenient plan of allowing the southern states to reenter the Union. He opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, granting citizenship to formerly enslaved people. He also vetoed several bills, including the Freedmans Bureau and the Civil Rights Act (which was later overridden). During the midterm elections, the Radical Republicans obtained a veto proof majority in both houses of Congress. The reconstruction bills passed despite Johnson's continued vetoes.
The Radical Republicans favored a military plan of reconstruction; however, Johnson was Commander in Chief and would not implement their plans. The Secretary of War, Stanton, was a Radical Republican and favored instituting the reconstruction policies. To protect him from removal by Johnson, the Tenure of Office act was passed. The act forbade Johnson from removing any member of the Cabinet without the advice and consent of Congress.
The tensions between Congress and Johnson came to a head. Johnson twice tried to remove Stanton as Secretary of War without Congress' approval. This led to the drafting of articles of impeachment against Johnson. On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives voted 126 to 47 to impeach President Johnson based on 11 articles of impeachment.
A trial in the Senate commenced. They took a vote on three articles of impeachment. 54 Senators representing 27 states voted 35 – 19 on each of the three articles in favor of conviction. However, the vote was one vote short of the 2/3 majority needed for conviction. The Senate dismissed the remaining charges. Johnson remained in office until the end of his term on March 4, 1869.
The aftermath of Johnson's impeachment impacted the power balances between the executive and legislative branches. It showed that Congress could not remove the President simply because they disagreed with him politically; impeachment should be reserved for actual “High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Impeachment was not used for over 100 years. It also weakened presidential power somewhat and lead to “Congressional Government" at the end of the 1800s.
While Congress never completed impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, Congress did investigate him and draft articles of impeachment because of the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigned before the impeachment hearings could begin.
The Watergate scandal stems from the June 17, 1972, arrest of several individuals who were burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building. The individuals worked for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), a campaign organization formed to reelect President Nixon. While the investigation was proceeding, Nixon was re-elected and took the oath of office for his second term in 1973.
In the summer of 1973, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the burglary and its connection to the CRP. The investigation uncovered evidence that Nixon used the government to harass his enemies. The special prosecutor also discovered that the burglars had committed previous burglaries. An aide revealed that Nixon had recorded all conversations in the Oval Office. This led many to believe that there would be some recorded conversations regarding the burglary and the cover-up.
The special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes, but Nixon refused to turn them over and tried to fire the special prosecutor. This led to an event known as the Saturday Night Massacre. He first asked the Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor, he refused and resigned. Similarly, the Deputy Attorney General also refused and resigned. Finally, the Solicitor General, as acting Attorney General, fired the special prosecutor. A replacement special prosecutor was appointed, and the investigation continued.
In early 1974, the House Judiciary Committee began investigating the Watergate scandal and eventually commenced an impeachment inquiry. While the Committee's investigation was ongoing, more Watergate conspirators were indicted, and the President was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. A district court ordered the President to turn over the tapes to the special prosecutor. The Supreme Court affirmed the order in United States v. Nixon.
In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee drafted three articles of impeachment:
- Obstruction of Justice – related to Nixon's attempts to impede the investigation into the Watergate break-in.
- Abuse of Power – based on Nixon using federal agencies including the IRS and the FBI against his enemies and authorizing burglaries of private citizens who opposed.
- Contempt of Congress – for refusing to cooperate with the House Judiciary committee's investigation.
On August 5, 1974, according to the court's order, Nixon released the transcripts of the tapes that showed he was, in fact, complicit in the cover-up of Watergate. This destroyed him politically, with many of his own party saying they would vote for impeachment and conviction.
On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from office before he could be impeached and convicted. Although he was not impeached, it was the first time that the impeachment process resulted in a president leaving office.
Bill Clinton was the second president impeached in U.S. history. In 1998, the House of Representatives impeached him on two articles of impeachment - perjury and obstruction of justice.
During Clinton's first term, he faced a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones for actions when he was Governor of Arkansas. He was also facing an independent counsel investigation for Whitewater, a land deal prior to his taking office. Both contributed to his impeachment.
From 1995 through 1996, Clinton engaged in an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. After the affair ended, Lewinsky confided in a coworker at the Pentagon about her affair with the President. The coworker, Linda Tripp, started recording her conversations with Lewinsky. When the Paula Jones case was allowed to move forward, Tripp contacted her attorney with information about Lewinsky.
When Clinton found out Lewinsky was listed as a witness in the Jones case, he took steps to cover up the affair. He suggested that Lewinsky file a false affidavit and use cover stories. He also helped her find a job to influence her testimony. When Clinton was deposed in the Jones case, he denied having any sexual relationship or affair with Lewinsky.
Linda Tripp also informed the independent counsel, Ken Starr, that Lewinsky would commit perjury in the Jones case. She stated that the President's confidant, Vernon Jordan, was advising Lewinsky. Jordan's involvement was enough for Starr to convince the Attorney General to expand the investigation to include the Lewinsky matter. Starr found evidence of perjury and obstruction and submitted his report to the House of Representatives.
The House Judiciary Committee opened an impeachment inquiry based on the Starr Report. The Judiciary Committee did not conduct an independent investigation, basing the inquiry on the Starr report. The committee submitted four articles of impeachment to the full House for consideration.
- Grand Jury Perjury (in the Jones case),
- Perjury (in the Jones case),
- Obstruction of Justice, and
- Abuse of Power
On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives impeached Clinton on the first and third articles of impeachment. The vote on the first article was 228 in favor and 206 opposed. The vote on the third article was 221 in favor and 212 opposed. Members of the House rejected the second and fourth articles.
Before beginning the trial in the Senate, there was discussion of an official censure rather than holding a trial. However, they agreed to move forward with the trial. On February 12, 1999, Clinton was acquitted on both counts. The perjury charge did not achieve a majority in favor of conviction, 55 senators voted to acquit while 45 voted to convict. The vote on the obstruction charge was split 50 / 50.
Clinton served out the remaining two years of his term.
Why Did Clinton Survive Impeachment When Nixon Did Not?
While there are similarities in the impeachment charges between the two, there are some substantive differences. Nixon's resignation came after the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers. There was an overall decline of trust in the government. While in the 90s, under Clinton, the trust in the government was increasing.
Perhaps the most important difference was the support each president had during the proceedings. When Nixon's direct involvement in the Watergate scandal came to light, he lost support from his own party. Throughout his presidency, Clinton enjoyed bipartisan support based on the job he was doing. The charges were seen as a moral failure rather than a failure of leadership.
Donald Trump is the only American president in history who was impeached twice by the House of Representatives. He was not convicted by the Senate either time and served his full term.
Trump's First Impeachment
Trump's first impeachment stemmed from charges that he solicited foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. Starting with the 2016 election, there had been allegations of Russian interference, from social media to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's servers. There was a special counsel investigation into those matters. However, despite widespread interference and evidence that the Trump campaign welcomed the interference, there was not enough evidence to bring any charges related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In 2019, Trump sought foreign interference and investigations to find information on his potential political opponents, including Joe Biden. Trump used surrogates, including Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine and other countries to support conspiracy theories. Trump blocked a Congressionally authorized military aid payment to Ukraine until President Zelenskyy agreed to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and cooperate with Giuliani.
On July 25, 2019, Trump had a phone call with Zelenskyy to discuss the requested quid pro quo, military aid for information. Alexander Vindman, an aide who was present during the phone call, made a whistleblower complaint, claiming Trump was abusing his presidential powers to gain interference into the 2020 election. The White House released partial transcripts which confirmed the allegations but claimed that the president did nothing wrong.
Following the whistleblower complaint, the House commenced several investigations into the matter. Trump and the White House did not cooperate with the investigations and often told subordinates to ignore subpoenas. A formal, public impeachment inquiry began in November 2019. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland admitted that he and Giuliani did their investigations with the express direction of the president.
The House Judiciary Committee drafted two articles of impeachment:
- Abuse of Power for seeking the quid pro quo with the Ukraine.
- Obstruction of Congress for hindering the House's investigation.
The House of Representatives held a vote on the Articles of Impeachment on December 18, 2019. In a 230 to 197 vote, the House voted to Impeach Trump on both articles.
The impeachment proceedings were highly partisan. The Republicans accused the Democrats, who controlled the House, of being politically motivated. The impeachment vote against Trump was the first time the House impeached without any support from the sitting president's party. The partisanship continued as the Senate became involved. Many Republican senators said that they would not be impartial during the trial. Another vote prevented the House from calling any witnesses during the trial.
The Senate trial was held in February 2020. The vote on the first article of impeachment, Abuse of Power, was 48 votes for conviction and 52 votes to acquit. The second impeachment vote was 47 votes for conviction and 53 votes to acquit. Both failed to reach the necessary two-thirds vote to convict. For the first time, a member of the president's own party voted in favor of conviction, with Mitt Romney voting in favor of conviction on the Abuse of Power charge.
Trump remained in office. Shortly after the impeachment trial, he fired two witnesses who testified during the impeachment hearings, Ambassador Sondland and Alexander Vindman. Trump lost the 2020 election, however, his efforts to have the election declared invalid led to his second impeachment.
One year after his first impeachment, members of Congress impeached Trump again for his involvement in inciting the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. This impeachment was historic for several reasons. It was the first time a president faced impeachment for a second time. He was also impeached one week before the end of his term.
Almost immediately after the 2020 election was declared in favor of Joe Biden, Trump began to try and discredit the election. As part of his “big lie," he claimed that rigged voting machines and widespread voter fraud led to his defeat.
On December 1, 2020, the FBI announced that it had found no evidence of any fraud. Furthermore, the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency declared that the election was the most secure ever. Trump refused to accept these claims. He even fired the director who made those claims.
In addition to Trump's refusal to accept the election results, many Republicans followed suit and refused to acknowledge Biden as the president-elect. The strategy was to target state legislatures, throw out legally cast ballots and target the electoral vote certification. Trump also filed 63 unsuccessful lawsuits to challenge the validity of ballots and election results.
Despite all his attempts, Congress moved forward with counting the electoral votes and certification of the election on January 6, 2021. On the same day, Trump supporters held a “Save America" rally. Trump addressed the crowd, still claiming that the election was fraudulent. He encouraged supporters to fight like hell to save the country.
After the speech, approximately 2,000 supporters marched to the Capitol, where Congress was in session. In what has been described as an attempted coup, they broke into the Capitol, vandalized, and looted it. They assaulted Capitol police as they tried to locate lawmakers, including Vice President Pence, to keep the results from being certified.
Trump initially resisted calls to bring the National Guard in to help restore order before giving in. After several hours, he finally told his supporters to go home. The insurrection was over by evening. Congress resumed, and in the early morning of January 7, 2021, Biden and Harris were declared the election winners.
On January 11, 2021, an article of impeachment for Incitement of Insurrection for the events of January 6th was introduced and had 218 cosigners. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, told the Vice President that he should invoke the 25th Amendment and become acting president or else the House would vote to impeach. Once Pence refused, impeachment moved forward.
The House voted on January 13, 2021, with a vote of 232 to 197 in favor of impeachment. Ten Republicans voted in favor of impeachment.
When the case moved to the Senate, some wanted to dismiss the trial, arguing it was unconstitutional because Trump was no longer in office. However, the trial moved forward. Trump was acquitted on a vote of 57 in favor of conviction and 43 in favor of acquittal. Although the majority voted for conviction, it was ten votes short of the 67 votes necessary to convict. Seven Republicans voted for conviction, making it the most significant bipartisan vote for conviction in history.
As Trump had already been removed from office based on the election results, some wondered why it was necessary to impeach him. Had he been convicted; the Senate could have held a separate vote to disqualify him from holding future office. This "punishment" would have only required a simple majority vote.
Future of Impeachment
Based on the outcome of Trump's second impeachment trial, many wondered if any president could be convicted and removed from office. It may be difficult given today's highly partisan atmosphere. It has been over 50 years since a single party held a 2/3 majority in the Senate, and that was the same party as the president. Therefore, any impeachment conviction would require several senators from the president's party to vote in favor of conviction. This is highly unlikely with the two-party system and the current deep divide between the parties.