In case you haven’t been following the news this week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi formally announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over a phone call he had with the president of Ukraine and possible actions taken to hide the details of that call. . You can read the transcript here. An anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint about the call, which took place in July, and now, here we are.
On Tuesday, Pelosi said, “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections…Therefore, today, I am announcing the House of Representatives moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry. I am directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”
I won’t get into the political mechanizations behind these statements, whether we can say definitively right now what will or won’t happen, but I do want to look at history. Because presidential impeachment has been thrown around since BEFORE Trump even took office, but has it worked in the past?
In case you didn’t know, three US presidents have faced impeachment in the past. Those three presidents are Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. None of them were removed from office via that impeachment process. One of them, Nixon ,chose to resign over what certainly would have been an impeachment. The other two, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, served out their terms.
Now, impeachment doesn’t JUST happen to presidents, but that’s obviously what the media cares about now and therefore what I’ll focus on. Other elected officials can, and have been, impeached, but it doesn’t make for the same news story.
First, let’s look at what the Constitution says about impeachment.
Article I, Section II: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
Article I, Section III: “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. Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”
Article II, Section IV: “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.”
Let’s break down what that means. It means that the House must begin impeachment proceedings, but the Senate conducts the trial. If, in this case, it got to the trial portion before the Senate and Trump was facing impeachment, Chief Justice John Roberts would president. So, the House investigates any potential crime by the accused and votes. If a majority vote in favor of impeachment, that person is considered “impeached” and the Senate takes over. It’s in the Senate where removal from office is on the table. Just because you’re “impeached” doesn’t mean you’re removed from office. Removal requires a 2⁄3 vote of the senate, a super-majority, which we all know is hard to get.
Because of this three-step process and the necessity of a super-majority for a removal in a body that is notoriously tightly divided, no US president has been removed from office by the Senate. Three have been “impeached” but none have been removed. Would Trump fare differently than his predecessors? Let’s take a look at the impeachment charges they faced.
Eleven charges of impeachment were brought against Andrew Johnson, the vice-president who stepped up after President Lincoln was assassinated. He was accused of a bevy of things, including most famously violating the tenure of office act by removing the Secretary of War. One of the articles of impeachment even said that he attempted “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.”
Johnson was defended in the trial by his attorney general, who resigned from his position. Chief Justice Salmon Chase presided. At the time, the Republicans, who had brought up impeachment, had a super-majority in the Senate. It should have been an easy removal, right? Not so fast. The House voted 126 to 47 to impeach Johnson, but the removal stalled in the Senate. The Senate ended up only voting on three of the articles of impeachment and ultimately, none of them passed. Johnson was acquitted 35 to 19 on all three impeachment articles. Yes, that’s ONE vote shy of removal, but that’s an acquittal. That was in May of 1968, and Johnson served until March 1969 as planned. A lot of the critics of Johnson who were against impeachment (and removal) felt that way because they wanted to protect the office of the president. We’ll see how that played out in later years…
Watergate is a story most of us know well, but the way it impacted this country is still playing out. Essentially, burglars working for Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the DNC offices at Watergate. It all came down to trying to illegally wiretap people, including opponents, which really is frowned upon in democracy. The Watergate break-in was in the summer of 1972. An investigation into those events started in early 1973. A special investigator was appointed, who Nixon then tried to fire, which didn’t go well. In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee brought three articles of impeachment against Nixon, charging obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.
On August 9, before an impeachment trial could even start in the House, Nixon resigned, and Gerald Ford, his vice-president who had stepped up after the resignation of VP Agnew, became president. Nixon is the only president to have ever resigned. Technically, he was not impeached, but Nixon was facing impeachment proceedings and articles of impeachment had been drawn up, so that’s important to note.