Impeachment is the process by which a member of the US government is removed from office by the legislature voting to remove them, usually as the result of serious misconduct or illegal activity.
Impeachment does not directly remove the official from office; it acts almost as if to charge them before they are then put on trial by the other chamber of the legislature.
This sounds slightly confusing but is really quite a simple process. Click through the tabs to learn more about impeachment, how a President is impeached and who has been impeached in the past.
How is a President impeached?
Perhaps it is easiest to explain through an example.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton was alleged to have engaged in an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Although not illegal, it was adjudicated to be serious misconduct, and after lying about the affair in the infamous “I have not had sexual relations with that woman” tape, he was considered for impeachment by the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives decided on four ‘charges’, known as Articles of Impeachment, which were the separate issues where they believed he had acted improperly in. The House then debated these different Articles of Impeachment and voted on whether he should be charged for them. The House decided to charge Clinton on two counts, “lying under oath” and “obstruction of justice” – at this point Clinton was impeached, this made him the second president (after Andrew Johnson) to be impeached – Trump became the third in 2019.
These two charges were then brought forward to the Senate, where they held a trial, with the Senators acting as a Jury. The Supreme Court’s Chief Justice – at the time William H. Rehnquist – presided over the proceedings, with a prosecution attempting to show Clinton was guilty, and a defence, made up of White House officials. After a trial in which evidence was brought forward, the Senate were then asked to vote on whether he was guilty; they decided by a two-thirds margin that he was not.
In fact, no president has ever been removed from office following an impeachment trial.
Who can be impeached?
Although impeachment is mostly seen as a way of removing a president, they are not the only office-holders who can be impeached. The constitution states that only the House of Representatives has the power to impeach, and only the Senate has the power to try an impeachment trial – although many state legislatures have similar powers to remove governors in their state constitutions.
In addition to presidents, federal judges can also be impeached – with eight being successfully removed from office throughout history – as well as cabinet secretaries and members of the legislature. Senator Blount became the first and the only senator impeached in US history, being impeached in 1797 for assisting Britain in capturing Spanish territory, whilst US Secretary of War William W. Belknap was impeached for corruption in 1876 – shortly after the US civil war.
What is the impeachment process?
|The first stage of the impeachment process is to investigate the alleged crimes or misdemeanours committed by the government official. This is typically completed by the House of Representatives judiciary committee, although sometimes can be the result of independent investigations
|The House of Representatives will then vote on Articles of Impeachment – these are the equivalent of criminal charges – and will decide what the government official has been accused of. The House will vote on each article of impeachment, if any pass, the official will have been officially impeached. Only a simple majority vote is needed to impeach on any individual article.
|If impeached, the Senate will hold a trial against the accused. For the impeachment trial of a President, the trial shall be presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – for all other officials it tends to be the usual Senate providing officer, who is the Vice President. The trial shall comprise a defence and a prosecution, with the Senate acting as a jury; a two-thirds vote by the Senate will remove the official from office.
|In the case of presidential impeachment, the Vice President shall then take over for the remainder of the term in office, following the typical line of succession set out in the constitution.
Who has been impeached in the past?
Only three presidents have ever been impeached. Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2019.
When drafting the constitution, founding father, George Mason, favoured a system where a president could be impeached simply for failing to be a good president – “malcompetence”. This was unpopular with his peers, with James Madison suggesting that they should only be impeached for criminal activity; the compromise was that impeachment can be for any “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanours”.
Madison also argued that impeachment should not mean that the president serves at the pleasure of the legislature – who have the power to impeach and convict the president – meaning that in order the convict, the Senate must vote in a supermajority, two-thirds must vote to convict. In Federalist Paper 65 (the essays written by some of the founding fathers to gain support for the constitution), Alexander Hamilton described impeachable offences as “the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust”. This means that impeachable offences could include the “malcompetence” idea that Mason had wished to include, meaning that failing to execute the office of the president would enable impeachment proceedings to be considered.
Impeachment of Presidents
In 1868, the Senate came extremely close to convicting Johnson, thus removing him from office, with the vote falling just one short of making him the first – and, as yet, only – president to be removed from office. This is the closest any president has come to being removed from office through the impeachment process.
In the 1970s, Richard Nixon was set to be impeached for obstruction of justice, over his role in covering up the Watergate scandal – where the Democratic Party campaign headquarters were broken into and installed with listening equipment, to gain an advantage in the 1972 presidential election. The charges were brought forward, with the votes in favour of impeaching and Nixon was told that he was set to become the second president ever impeached; his infamous resignation speech followed later that evening. He avoided being impeached simply by his resignation, otherwise he would have been impeached, and likely removed from office through a Senate conviction due to the evidence presented by the famous Watergate tapes, where he was recorded talking about the bugging of the Democratic headquarters.
Bill Clinton in 1998 was the first successful presidential impeachment in more than 100 years, but he was never close to being removed from office. The opinion over whether or not Clinton was guilty has largely fallen along party lines, with Republicans believing that lying under oath was grounds for removal, and Democrats suggesting that it was a politically motivated trial that was not supported by the interpretations offered by the founding fathers.
Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings began in late 2019, after the transcript of a call came out, where he was allegedly pressured the Ukrainian prime minister into holding a trial against the son of Joe Biden – Biden later became the Democratic nominee. The House passed two articles of impeachment pertaining to obstruction of justice and abuse of power, for attempt to prevent an investigation into this alleged conduct, which would be illegal under United States law. The House voted to impeach Trump by 230-197, however the Senate trial was considered a sham by some. Senator Mitch McConnell – the Republican leader in the Senate – did not allow any witnesses to testify before the trial and Donald Trump was acquitted along partisan lines by a Republican majority in the Senate. Despite the lack of evidence presented (although there was much evidence leaked publicly), one Republican Senator voted to convict, Senator Mitt Romney from Utah, a frequent critic of Donald Trump and 2012 Republican presidential candidate.