How to Impeach a President
Since almost the moment that President Donald Trump took office, there have been calls to impeach him. Cities have passed resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment, some Democratic politicians have indicated that they believe he should be impeached, and a late-March survey by Public Policy Polling reports that 44 percent of Americans support impeaching the president. Regardless of many unprecedented actions on Trump’s part, this isn’t really anything new–comments about impeachment consistently dogged President Barack Obama’s presidency as well.
But an impeachment is much easier said than done. Over the course of American history, only two presidents have ever been impeached–President Andrew Johnson and President Bill Clinton, but neither president was removed from office as a result. Impeachment proceedings against a third president, Richard Nixon, began, but he resigned before much progress was made. Read on to learn about the impeachment process and the history of impeachments in the United States.
How Does Impeachment Work?
The U.S. Constitution lays out a procedure for impeaching the president (and vice president, and other officials).
Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 makes it clear that the House of Representatives has the ability to “impeach” a president, essentially meaning that the House is in charge of bringing impeachment charges. Although there are a few different things that can lead to a House impeachment, usually it begins with some sort of allegations being made against an official. The House Judiciary Committee is then tasked with investigating those allegations. If so, the entire House then votes on whether or not to impeach the official–majority rules–by adopting articles of impeachment. Although not a perfect metaphor, it might be helpful to think of an impeachment like an indictment.
As Article 1, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7 state, the Senate actually tries an official. Members of the House of Representatives are appointed to act as sort-of prosecutors of the official who is being tried. While usually the senators themselves serve as both judge and jury, in the case of a presidential impeachment, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides. Two-thirds of Senators are required to convict, and as a penalty for being convicted, the official must be removed from office. There is no way to appeal.
Impeachments Throughout History
The two most notorious impeachments are obviously President Andrew Johnson and President Bill Clinton. But impeachment isn’t just reserved for presidents. The House of Representatives has actually initiated impeachment proceedings for over 60 individuals since America’s independence. The House issued articles of impeachment for 15 other individuals. Of those 15, eight were found guilty by the Senate. The majority were judges. Here are the American officials who have been impeached:
- In 1797, Senator William Blount was impeached on charges that he tried to help England seize Spanish-controlled territory in North America. He was expelled from the Senate before he was actually tried.
- In 1803, Judge John Pickering of New Hampshire was impeached for being drunk on the bench and acting inappropriately. He was found guilty and removed from office.
- In 1804, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase was impeached for “arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials.” He was acquitted.
- In 1830, James H. Peck, a judge from Tennessee, was accused of abuse of power. He was acquitted.
- In 1862, West H. Humphreys, also a Tennessee judge, was impeached on charges that he “refused to hold court” and was acting against the U.S. government. He was found guilty, removed from office, and prevented from holding office in the future.
- In 1873 a Kansas judge, Mark H. Delahay, was impeached for being intoxicated while on the bench. He resigned before a trial began.
- In 1876, William W. Belknap, the Secretary of War, was impeached on various corruption charges. He was acquitted by the Senate.
- In 1904, Charles Swayne, a Florida judge, was impeached on charges that he misused his office. He was acquitted.
- In 1912, Robert W. Archbald, an Associate Judge of the U.S. Commerce Court, was impeached based on allegations that he had inappropriate business relationships with some litigants. He was found guilty, lost his job, and prevented from holding office moving forward.
- In 1926, George W. English, a judge from Illinois, was accused of abusing his power. He resigned and the charges were dismissed.
- In 1933, Harold Louderback, a California judge, was accused of “favoritism in the appointment of bankruptcy receivers.” He was acquitted.
- In 1936, Halsted L. Ritter, a judge from Florida, was impeached on a few charges, including that he was practicing law as a sitting judge. He was found guilty and removed from office.
- In 1986, Harry E. Claiborne, a Nevada judge, was accused of tax evasion, and staying on the bench despite having been convicted of a crime. He was found guilty, and lost his position.
- In 1988 Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida judge, was impeached on charges that he perjured himself and conspired to solicit a bribe. He was found guilty and removed from office. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Hastings is now a congressman.)
- In 1989, Walter L. Nixon, a Mississippi judge, was impeached on various charges, including that he lied under oath. He was found guilty and removed from his post.
- In 2009, Samuel B. Kent, a Texas judge, was impeached on a number of charges, including sexual assault. He resigned before the proceedings were completed.
- In 2010, G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., a Louisiana judge, was impeached on charges that included perjury and accepting bribes. He was found guilty, lost his position, and cannot hold office in the future.
The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
President Andrew Johnson assumed office after his predecessor, President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated in April 1865. However, the Lincoln-Johnson ticket was unusual. While Lincoln was a Republican, Johnson was a Democrat from the South. He had remained in the Senate even after his home state of Tennessee seceded, which endeared him to the Republicans. In 1964, Lincoln chose Johnson for his ticket, which was under the “National Unity Party,” in an attempt to appeal to the entire country in the context of the Civil War.
But when Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson was left in charge, he disagreed with the Republicans who held the majority in Congress. He famously declared: “This is a country for white men, and as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” He stood against the enforcement of the Reconstruction Acts, passed by Congress. In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, despite Johnson’s veto. This stopped the president from dismissing any government officials without the Senate’s approval.
Regardless of the bill, Johnson dismissed Edwin M. Stanton, his Secretary of War, who supported the Republicans in Congress. In response, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, 126-47. The charges were that he violated the Tenure of Office Act and brought “disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt, and reproach” into Congress. As Johnson was being tried by the Senate, he took actions that were seen as concessions to the Republicans in Congress. He ended up being acquitted, by just one vote.
Richard Nixon’s Narrow Miss
President Richard Nixon resigned after the fallout from the Watergate Scandal and his administration’s subsequent coverup. But had he not resigned, he certainly risked impeachment. On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed one article of impeachment–had Nixon not resigned, that vote would have made it to the full House of Representatives.
President Bill Clinton’s Impeachment
While in office, President Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Ken Starr, an independent investigator who had been originally tasked with looking into the Whitewater scandal but ended up investigating a wider range of controversies, submitted a report to the House Judiciary Committee. The report alleged that Clinton lied about his affair with Lewinsky during various testimony, including some regarding a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a woman named Paula Jones. The Starr Report contained 11 possible grounds for Clinton’s impeachment.
While the report was controversial, and Starr was accused of attacking Clinton for political motives, on December 19, 1998, the House approved two articles of impeachment against the president–one for obstruction of justice with a vote of 221-212, and one for lying under oath to a grand jury by a vote of 228-206.
On February 12, 1998, the Senate acquitted Clinton on both charges. In order to convict Clinton, the Senate would have needed a two-thirds majority. The obstruction of justice charge only garnered 50 votes, and the perjury charge only had 45 votes.
However, the impeachment, and affair, marred Clinton’s legacy.
Despite calls to impeach President Donald Trump (and previously President Barack Obama), impeachment isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s a long, controversial, and political process–one that has only ever been even partially started against three presidents. While other figures throughout history have been impeached, those three presidents–President Andrew Johnson, President Richard Nixon, and President Bill Clinton–offer the closest thing we have to a blueprint for how an impeachment of a president would look. Given today’s contentious political landscape, who knows when we’ll see that again.