A Primer on Presidential Impeachment

As I wrap up teaching the first part of the U.S. survey, we’ve been talking about President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Because of the current impeachment inquiry into President Trump, my students were very interested in learning more about the impeachment process. I wanted to share some of what we’ve been talking about.

The first thing to understand is that the presidential impeachment process is constitutional. Presidential impeachment is specifically mentioned in three different sections of the U.S. Constitution:

Article 1, Section 2: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

Article 1, Section 3: “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 2, Section 4: “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.”

[Note: The phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is subject to interpretation but, historically, it does not have to involve criminal activity. This article does a good job of explaining the history of the phrase and its application in previous impeachment proceedings.]

A second important point to understand is that the presidential impeachment process is actually two-fold. There is impeachment, and there is removal from office. The House of Representatives essentially serves as the grand jury, deciding whether or not to indict the president. Investigative work takes place at the committee level; ultimately, the House Judiciary Committee formulates the articles of impeachment, if it chooses to do so. These articles are then brought to the entire House for a vote. A simple majority approval on even one article means that the president has been impeached. (Article 1, Section 2)

Once a president has been impeached, then they are put on trial in the Senate. The Senate is charged with deciding whether to remove the president from office. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over a president’s Senate trial. If two-thirds of the Senate vote to convict the president of even one impeachment article, then the president is removed from office. (Article 1, Section 3)

To date, two U.S. presidents have been impeached, with neither being convicted and removed from office.

In 1868, the House presented 11 articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson. The articles can be grouped in roughly three categories: appointing and dismissing officials without the advice and consent of the Senate; conspiracy to violate the law; and demeaning the office of the president. Ultimately, the Senate voted on three articles, and Johnson was saved from removal by one vote in each case: 35 voted guilty, 19 voted not guilty, with 36 votes needed to convict and remove him from office.

In 1998-99, the House presented two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton: perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate voted on both articles, and Clinton was acquitted on both counts. The vote on the perjury article was 45 guilty, 55 not guilty; the vote on the obstruction of justice article was evenly split, with 50 voting guilty and 50 voting not guilty. Conviction and removal would have required 67 votes on one of the articles.

Richard Nixon was never actually impeached by the full House. The House Judiciary Committee did complete a report and recommended three articles of impeachment: obstruction of justice; abuse of power; and contempt of Congress. While the entire House did not vote on these articles (because Nixon resigned first), following his resignation, the House voted 412-3 to accept the Judiciary Committee’s report recommending impeachment. By resigning, Nixon not only avoided the embarrassment of being impeached but also of becoming the first president to be convicted in a Senate trial and removed from office, which was a foregone conclusion.

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