Impeachment of presidents Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As specified in the U.S. Constitution, impeachment means charging the president or other federal officials with treason, bribery, or other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House of Representatives has the sole power to impeach; the president is tried by the Senate and, if found guilty, removed from office.

The U.S. Constitution limits the grounds for impeachment to “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Treason and bribery are clearly defined, but the words “high crimes and misdemeanors” have caused difficulty. Some believe they refer only to indictable crimes, and a few have argued that a president can be impeached only after having been indicted. Most agree the term covers serious wrongdoing by the president that harms the United States. Although this does not necessarily mean indictable crimes, in many cases they would fall into this category.Chief justice, office of

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson in the Senate is depicted in this 1868 illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

(Library of Congress)

In theory, presidential impeachment is straightforward. The House Judiciary Committee takes evidence during hearings and votes on which articles of impeachment, if any, are sent to the full House. If the House approves the articles, managers are appointed to present the case to the Senate. Managers may be selected by direct vote, passage of a resolution, or at the discretion of the speaker.

When the Senate receives the articles of impeachment, it forms a tribunal with the chief justice of the United States presiding. The Senate hears evidence and, if it chooses, witnesses. The president (or other federal official) is represented by counsel and may appear in person. The Senate votes separately on each article of impeachment, with a two-thirds vote in favor required to convict. If any article of impeachment is approved, the chief justice pronounces the president guilty and thereby removed from office.

Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson

After he became president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew JohnsonJohnson, Andrew attempted to follow a policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. In doing so, he ran afoul of the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress. The situation was exacerbated by politics and personality. Johnson was a Democrat who had remained loyal to the Union but who opposed many Radical Republican policies. Rising from a poor background, he was a proud but often difficult man who made and kept enemies easily. As an unelected president, he was particularly vulnerable to attack.

In 1867 Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act,Tenure of Office Act which permitted removal of members of the president’s cabinet only by senatorial consent. When Johnson dismissed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton,Stanton, Edwin M. a staunch ally of the Radical Republicans, the House approved eleven articles of impeachment on March 3, 1868, and presented them to the Senate on March 5. The trial began on March 30.

Both sides focused on the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson’s lawyers offered better arguments and appealed to moderate Republicans. Ultimately, only two of the eleven impeachment articles were voted on, and Johnson was acquitted on each by a single vote.

Johnson’s impeachment and trial were clearly motivated by political differences rather than high crimes and misdemeanors. Eleven moderate Republicans voted their conscience and defeated the impeachment. Senator Edmund G. Moss of Kansas, whose single vote decided the issue, was featured in Profiles in Courage, authored by John F. Kennedy.

Nixon and Watergate

In June, 1972, during President Richard M. Nixon’sNixon, Richard M. reelection campaign, several burglars were arrested for breaking into Democratic Party National Headquarters at the WatergateWatergate affair complex in Washington, D.C. Suspicion grew that the Nixon White House knew of the event and had participated in its cover-up.

For the next two years, the White House alternated between “stonewalling” (refusing to release any evidence) and “limited hang-out” (providing some, but not all of the evidence). By the spring of 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaigns heard testimony that tape recordings of conversations in the Oval Office held evidence that President Nixon had indeed participated in the cover-up. Nixon sought to withhold the tapes under executive privilege. During the “Saturday night massacre” of October 19, 1973, Nixon dismissed his attorney general, assistant attorney general, and special prosecutor Archibald CoxCox, Archibald in an effort to retain the tapes.

On October 30, 1973, the House Judiciary Committee began investigations. In April, 1974, it launched a full-scale impeachment inquiry and it approved the first of three articles of impeachment on July 27, 1974. The underlying theme was that all charges involved violations of the president’s constitutional duties and intended to further Nixon’s personal political interests.

At this point, the Supreme Court ruled eight to zero (Nixon-appointed justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate) that the president must surrender the tapes. The tapes demonstrated that Nixon had indeed known about the cover-up as early as June 20, 1972, and had orchestrated many of the activities. As his Congressional support eroded, Nixon understood he faced conviction by the Senate, and he resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.

Impeachment and Trial of Bill Clinton

Soon after Democrat Bill ClintonClinton, Bill was elected president in 1992, Republican Congressional opponents demanded investigation of numerous alleged Clinton offenses. When Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, their attacks resulted in the appointment of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr,Starr, Kenneth who used all means available to secure Clinton’s impeachment. Despite, or perhaps because of, Clinton’s reelection in 1996, the partisan attacks continued, and late in 1998 Starr presented evidence to Congress that Clinton had lied to a grand jury about an affair with a White House intern.

After hearings in the House Judiciary Committee, the full House, voting along party lines, approved impeachment on two counts, of perjury and obstruction of justice, on December 19, 1998. In the Senate, with Chief Justice Rehnquist presiding, the House managers presented their case. The Senate rejected suggestions of censuring, rather than trying, the president and opted not to hear witnesses.

On President’s Day, February 14, 1999, the Senate found Clinton not guilty on both counts. Despite Republican control of the Senate, the House’s impeachment articles could not even muster a simple majority. The offenses alleged against the president had been found not to have risen to the level required by the Constitution.

Presidential impeachment was regarded by the authors of the Constitution as the last resort to remove a president who seriously threatened the safety and security of the nation. It has been much discussed but rarely used. In the cases of Johnson and Clinton, when the motive was brazenly political, impeachment was rejected. In contrast, Nixon resigned rather than face the inevitable judgment of the American people acting through their elected representatives.

Further Reading
  • Berger, Raoul. Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  • Black, Charles L. Impeachment: A Handbook. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.
  • Gerhardt, Michael J. The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Labovitz, John R. Presidential Impeachment. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Bork, Robert H.

Chase, Salmon P.

Clinton, Bill

Executive privilege

Nixon, Richard M.

Presidential powers

Rehnquist, William H.

Stanton, Edwin M.

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