Cries of “impeach ’em!” can be very common in our political conversations, but what does it mean to actually impeach a president or politician? It is worth exploring the impeachment process, where it came from, and how it played out in history. So, how does impeachment work?
Quiz yourself: Impeached US Presidents
What Does Impeachment Mean?
Firs things first, let’s discuss what is actually means to impeach. When a political official or office-holder has been impeached, it means they have been charged with misconduct. The concept of impeachment comes from English law, where it was originally used to remove any law-breaking Members of Parliament. In the United States, who can be impeached and the reasons for doing it are somewhat hazy. Article 2, Section 4 of the United States Constitution states that:
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.
And that’s all, folks.
Besides the specific enumeration of the President and Vice President, who can be impeached and for what reasons is somewhat vague. Some scholars have argued that the authors of the constitution intentionally left it vague. Back in 1970 when he was still just a Congressman, Gerald Ford said that impeachment is “whatever a majority of the House [considers it] to be at a given moment in history,” and this reality is widely accepted among federal officials.
However, even if an official is impeached it does not mean they’ve been convicted of misconduct itself, or that they will be removed from office. In that sense, the word impeachment just refers to the charge of misconduct itself rather than being convicted of it or removed from office. That definition accounts for why we say that Bill Clinton was impeached, but not convicted or removed from office.
A similar situation could play out with Donald Trump, who has been impeached by the House. He will now face a January 2020 trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. Many political scientists expect him to be acquitted, which will allow him to remain in office.
But let’s back up a bit. How does one go about impeaching an elected official in the first place?
How to Impeach a President (or “Civil Officer”) in 6 Easy Steps:
- Someone in the House of Representatives has to come up with a good reason (see Article 2 Section 4 of the Constitution) to impeach the president, and present these reasons to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
- If the Committee on the Judiciary agrees that the charges are valid reasons for impeachment, articles of impeachment are drafted (each article is a separate charge) and presented to the members of the House.
- If the articles are adopted by a simple majority, the House then appoints managers to act as prosecutors in the future Senate proceedings. They collect evidence, subpoena witnesses, etc.
- The impeachment proceedings in the Senate are like a trial, with the House managers presenting evidence, cross-examining relevant witnesses, and so on. The person subject to impeachment has the right to an attorney for their defense, and can also present evidence and witnesses in their favor.
- The Senate members, acting like a jury of sorts, deliberate in private and then vote on the conviction. A 2/3 majority vote of “guilty” is needed for a conviction.
- If 2/3 of the senate votes for a conviction, then the senate votes on a motion to remove the person from office. If a 2/3 majority vote does not occur, the official is considered to be acquitted.
While the process of how to impeach might seem fairly straight-forward, it often takes months to complete the proceedings. The House of Representatives has initiated the impeachment process 62 times throughout US history, but only 20 federal officials (mostly judges) have actually been impeached. Only 3 presidents have been impeached–Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both acquitted by the Senate, with Donald Trump currently awaiting trial.
Can Officials Be Impeached but Not Removed from Office?
Perhaps the most notable and well-known case of impeachment was that of former president Bill Clinton, which occurred in late 1998 into early 1999. He had been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for things he had said under oath when dealing with a sexual harassment lawsuit that had been filed against him. When the House began discussing the initial of impeachment proceedings, a number of scholars came out of the woodwork to argue that lying about one’s sexual activities does not amount to the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” articulated in the Constitution. Even so, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to accept two of the four articles of impeachment originally presented. The Senate trial began in January 1999 but only 45 members of the Senate voted for a conviction after the closing arguments, 22 short of the 67-person majority needed. In this case, President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives but not convicted by the Senate. For that reason, he was not removed from office.
The first case of a presidential impeachment occurred in 1868 when Andrew Johnson was charged with violating the Tenure of Office Act, which stated that a president cannot remove a cabinet member without the Senate’s advice or consent. The Act had been passed the year prior to ensure that Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War appointee, Edwin M. Stanton, would remain in office throughout Johnson’s presidency. Johnson became president back in 1865 after Lincoln was assassinated, but many radical Republicans (remember, the Republican party was established in 1854 by anti-slavery activists) were worried that Johnson would be too soft on the recently-defeated South. Stanton argued for the military occupation of the South, while President Johnson wanted to extend a pardon to all white southerners except for former Confederate generals. Due to this difference in views, Congress quickly passed the Tenure of Office Act to ensure Stanton would stay put. Nevertheless, Johnson chose to dismiss Stanton while Congress was not in session and he replaced him with General Ulysses S. Grant. A mere three days after Stanton’s dismissal, the House voted in favor to impeach Johnson for high crimes and misdemeanors, and a week later they adopted eleven articles of impeachment. The Senate trial took about two months but only 35 members voted guilty, one vote shy of the 36 needed for the 2/3 majority. At this point, a number of influential US citizens were so outraged over the acquittal that they submitted a petition calling for the abolition of the presidency, since in their perspective the presidency was too powerful of a position for a single person. This petition did not stir the passions of Congress, and Johnson completed his term despite being impeached by the House.
Today, America once again finds itself in the middle of a presidential impeachment. The impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump began in the fall of 2019, after a whistleblower alleged that the President withheld military aid to Ukraine as a way of pressuring President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate possible corruption committed by Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. On December 10th, after weeks of witness testimony, the House Judiciary Committee released their articles of impeachment: one for abuse of power and one for obstruction of Congress. On December 18th, the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump on both charges.
The First to Be Removed from Office
The first federal official to be impeached and removed from office was Judge John Pickering in 1803. Judge Pickering was reportedly a public embarrassment who would show up to court drunk out of his mind and raving incoherently. The House voted to impeach him on account of his being intoxicated while on the bench and making unlawful rulings in court cases. The Senate found him guilty of these charges a year after the House voted to impeach him. However, Pickering’s removal proved to be quite controversial both during his life and historically-speaking. Many politicians and fellow judges felt that Pickering had not committed a high crime or misdemeanor, and that his removal had been due to partisan biases rather than him committing genuine impeachable offenses. President John Adams, who had appointed Pickering, was a member of the Federalist party. By turn of the nineteenth century, the Democratic-Republicans controlled Congress and the president at the time, Thomas Jefferson, was also a member of the same party. The Federalists accused President Jefferson of supplying the House with evidence of Pickering’s supposed misconduct with the intention of removing Federalist-appointed federal judges. To this day, Pickering’s impeachment and removal from office is considered to motivated by partisan politics rather than genuine concern over official misconduct. Being drunk on the job is definitely a no-no, but it doesn’t amount to high crimes or misdemeanors. Try using that excuse with your boss!
That’s How to Impeach a President, but Now What?
All in all, impeachment of an elected or appointed official is a long and fairly biased process. Since there is no cut-and-dry definition of what justifies impeachment, partisan politics and ulterior motives can certainly play a part in whether an official is impeached or not. While the impeachment proceedings may resemble a trial, witnesses and evidence aren’t held to the same standard as regular court proceedings. While impeaching an unsavory or downright heinous politician may seem like the solution to the problem, remember that impeachment doesn’t always mean the person will be removed from office.
You might also like: What Is the Presidential Line of Succession?