Impeachment seems to be the big word of the day, especially considering that Donald Trump is arguably the most controversial president in the 21st century. Read on to learn more about the process of impeachment and the presidents who already went through it.
40. Impeachment is Part of the Process of Removing a President From Office
In Benjamin Franklin’s words, impeachment is a source of action for a president who “has rendered himself obnoxious.” In other words, if a president’s behavior has become such that he (or nowadays, potentially she) is a source of embarrassment and woe to the country, he or she can be removed from office.
39. Governments Did Not Have an Impeachment Process
At the time of the founding of the United States, most countries were monarchies. They were headed by kings and queens, who passed the office of head of state on to their sons (or sometimes daughters). As such, there was little that could be done to remove an ineffective leader from office. The Founders wanted to make sure that the United States lived by a different code.
38. British Civil Law Had a Contour Called Impeachment
Impeachment referred to the process of trial, conviction, and punishment that applied to both those in government and commoners. British Parliament had occasionally resorted to the process and, on a few occasions, did remove people from office for notoriously bad behavior.
37. Impeachment Was Written Into America’s Constitution
America’s Founding Fathers wrote into the constitution a process for removing the president from office for obnoxious behavior. They based the method on British civil law, but they added a distinctly American flavor to it. They did not take lightly the fact that impeaching a president meant overturning another constitutional process, that of voting for the president to put him or her into office.
Benjamin Franklin’s description of presidential behavior worthy of impeachment was a bit too subjective to use in the country’s founding documents. After all, what defines “obnoxious behavior?” The Founders thought through the dilemma and settled on three items worthy of impeachment. Those three items are treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors.
35. Treason Means Providing Assistance to a Sovereign Enemy
If the United States is at war with a sovereign country, and a president provides information or any other form of assistance to that country, he or she has committed treason and, should those crimes be discovered, will be impeached. Treason is a crime that the Founding Fathers took very seriously – it carries the death penalty.
If a president offers money in exchange for a political favor, he or she has committed bribery. Again, should that crime be discovered, he or she will very likely be impeached. The “paying off” could be in the form of monetary compensation, offering the person a high-level position (such as within the cabinet), or any number of things to reward unethical behavior.
Treason and bribery are pretty straightforward and easy to define. However, what exactly constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors”? Constitutional scholars generally agree that high crimes and misdemeanors are offenses committed by the president that betray the trust of the public. In other words, if the president does something that the people can no longer view him or her as worthy of holding the office of president, he or she can be impeached.
Proving treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors is notoriously difficult and often a process that involves party loyalties more than an objective view of the president’s behavior. The only two presidents who have ever been impeached were including Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Although many people think Richard Nixon is among that list, the 37th president of the United States actually resigned before he could be impeached. Both Johnson and Clinton were officially impeached. Nevertheless, they still weren’t removed from office for the bad conduct.
31. All Impeachments Were for High Crimes and Misdemeanors
No president so far is known to have engaged in treason or bribery, or if any of them have, they were not prosecuted for it. All impeachment proceedings were for high crimes and misdemeanors, that murky category that is difficult to pinpoint objectively. Proving that they had done something wrong was actually a complicated, arduous process.
30. Impeachment Begins in the House of Representatives
You probably recall that there are two houses of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. In order for impeachment proceedings to begin, any member of the House can bring articles of impeachment. Most of the time, these articles of impeachment go nowhere. When a representative tried to impeach George W. Bush in 2008, nothing came of it.
After articles of impeachment are introduced to the House of Representatives, if it passes through the committee, it goes to the floor for a vote. A simple majority vote is all that is required for the president to be impeached. That’s it – 51% of representatives have to vote in favor of impeachment. However, that doesn’t mean that he or she is removed from office.
The House of Representatives needs to vote for the impeachment of a president. If impeached, the president is then tried by the Senate to see if he or she is guilty of the charges brought forth. Witnesses are brought forward, and testimony is reviewed. Anything that would typically happen in a trial also happens during impeachment. In this case, the senators act as a jury.
Impeachment requires a simple majority vote by the House of Representatives. Conviction of the charges requires a supermajority – 67 out of the 100 senators. The process may sound straightforward, but it’s actually quite fraught and usually split along party lines. A Republican House will likely not vote to impeach a Republican president, and a Democratic Senate will probably not vote to convict a Democratic president.
There is a pretty widespread public misunderstanding that impeachment means removal from office. Impeachment means that the proceedings to remove a president from office begin. A conviction by the Senate is what leads to the president being removed from office. That process requires a House majority and a Senate supermajority.
Of the two presidents who have been impeached, none of them has been convicted by the Senate. Andrew Johnson was acquitted by one vote and Bill Clinton was acquitted by a Democratic Senate that voted in his favor. No president has ever been removed from office for treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. As previously mentioned, Richard Nixon resigned before he could stand trial for impeachment.
24. Andrew Johnson Was Impeached For Firing His Secretary of War
In the confusing days of Reconstruction-era politics, Congress passed a Tenure of Office Act, which meant that the Senate had to approve of the president firing certain cabinet members. Congress passed this law primarily to protect Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, whom Johnson wanted to replace. When he fired Stanton, the House voted to impeach him.
The House adopted eleven articles of impeachment, which went to the Senate for trial. A majority of senators voted in favor of his conviction on the first article, but they didn’t have the required supermajority. After a ten-day recess, they failed to achieve a supermajority to convict him on the next two articles. After that, the charges were dropped.
22. Bill Clinton was Impeached for Perjury and Obstruction of Justice
Perjury means lying under oath. Following Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a college intern at the White House, he declared under oath that he had not had a relationship with her. The issue at stake was not whether or not he had had an affair but that he had lied about it. Obstruction of justice means preventing an investigation from occurring.
21. The House of Representatives Voted for Impeachment
In 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out, the House of Representatives had a Republican majority, and they voted to impeach the president. Many critics argued that the issue of the president having an affair was detracting from matters of state, such as CIA operations in Afghanistan, and that he should have never even been put under oath regarding the relationship in the first place.
20. The Impeachment Proceedings Did Not Even Begin With Monica Lewinsky
Paula Jones had worked for Clinton while he was the governor of Arkansas. When he was president, she brought forward a charge that he had sexually harassed her during that time. The deposition for his conduct as governor contained within it a charge about Monica Lewinsky – a charge that was utterly unrelated to the Paula Jones incident.
Impeachment proceedings are fraught with difficulty and usually follow party loyalty more than objective views of the president’s behavior. The Senate, which held a Democratic majority, voted to acquit the president of all of the charges brought against him. During the proceedings, issues of state had to take a backseat to the president’s affairs (many, many presidents are known to have had relations, not just Clinton).
18. Impeachment Proceedings Are Much Less Straightforward Than They Seem
The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was over a law that favored one particular cabinet member, and ultimately, the Supreme Court declared that law to be unconstitutional. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was over an affair. Historically, impeachments have been less about breaches of public trust than they have been about party politics.
Some argue that what presidents do in their personal lives doesn’t matter. However, presidents are heads of state, and as such, what they do – privately or publicly – does matter. While Andrew Johnson may have been impeached for violating an unconstitutional law, one might argue that as a public servant, who should have regarded the law, even though he didn’t like it. Moreover, Bill Clinton, well, one could argue that just because other presidents have had affairs doesn’t mean that he should. After all, “high crimes and misdemeanors” are about public trust.
16. However, Clinton’s “Crimes” Didn’t Affect the Public Trust
Throughout the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent impeachment and trial of Clinton, his popularity and approval ratings remained pretty constant. In other words, because his actions had not necessarily betrayed the public’s trust, then regardless of the context, he had not committed a high crime or misdemeanor. Though House Republicans called for him to resign, not one Democratic senator voted for his conviction.
15. One President Who Did Betray the Public Trust Was Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. During his re-election campaign, a crime that was later to be known as “Watergate” did lead to the losing public faith in the president. Nixon’s impeachment proceedings were not divided along party lines because he had apparently committed a crime against the American public.
14. Watergate Was the Building That Hosted the Democratic National Committee
In 1972, Nixon was running against the Democratic candidate George McGovern. That year, the Democratic National Committee headquarters was located in the Watergate Office Building, part of a building complex in Washington, DC. The events that unfolded were about a break-in to the DNC headquarters and the president trying to cover up what had happened.
For several months, a few incongruous members of the Republican campaign to re-elect Nixon had been planning to break into the DNC headquarters in order to wiretap the offices. Doing so would provide intelligence that would help lead to Nixon’s re-election. The men who carried out the act were high-ranking members of the campaign.
12. The Men Were Arrested the Night of the Break-In
Those who were involved in the actual wiretapping were caught by a security guard, who called the police. They were arrested that night for attempted interception of telephone and other communications along with attempted burglary. They were indicted for violation of wiretapping laws, burglary, and conspiracy; later, they were tried and either convicted or pled guilty.
11. Nixon Tried to Cover Up Any Association With His Campaign
The arrest of the burglars might have been the end of the story, except for the fact that the president went on to try to hide what they had done. He destroyed tapes from the Oval Office, which included conversations with those involved in the conspiracy, and fired cabinet members who might have come forward with evidence of what had happened.
The president actively prevented an investigation into the events surrounding the break-in. With law enforcement stymied, a pair of journalists – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – unraveled the timeline and presented the facts in the New York Times. They were aided by an FBI informant known only as Deep Throat; 33 years later, he was revealed to be William Mark Felt, Sr., then the deputy director of the FBI.
9. Republicans Called for Investigations Into Nixon’s Behavior
Nixon was a Republican president, and members of his own party were the ones who chose to investigate him. That fact reveals that he had so severely breached the public’s trust that his party could no longer support him. All of the people, not just Democrats, were appalled that the president had acted so deceptively.
When Bill Clinton was impeached and tried, his popularity remained well above 50% among the general public. Many Democrats derided a “far-right” faction that was out to make him resign. With Nixon, however, his approval quickly tanked from over 60% to less than 20%. The people no longer had faith in him or his abilities to carry out the office of the president.
Nixon knew that he was in trouble, not only for what the burglars did at the Watergate complex but for how he had tried to cover it up. The articles of impeachment passed through a bipartisan House Judiciary Committee, at which point Nixon resigned. Had he stayed in office, he undoubtedly would have been impeached and then convicted by the Senate.
6. Impeachment Requires the President’s Party to Lose Faith in Him or Her
Democrats have been saying for a long time that they intend to impeach Donald Trump, and they may have substantial grounds to do so. However, history shows us that the process of impeachment is far from simple. It is often drawn along party lines, and Donald Trump’s Republican party continues to support him. Even without a House majority, his party would have to turn against him for impeachment proceedings to lead to a conviction.
5. When the President’s Party Turns Against Him, Nixon Shows Himself the Door
In the case of Nixon, he knew that he would undoubtedly face conviction. His only option to avoid a drawn-out Senate trial was to leave on his terms. In Clinton’s case, partisan politics prevented him from being convicted. Once Nixon’s own party had turned against him, there was no saving his presidency.
When Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford, took over following the president’s resignation, one of the first things that he did was grant an official pardon to Nixon. Many people felt that doing so was a grave injustice, as he had so greviously broken the public trust. However, in pardoning the president, Ford avoided a lengthy trial and sentencing that could have prevented the country from moving forward.
3. A True Impeachment Process Brings a Constitutional Crisis
A constitutional crisis is a problem that the constitution is unable to resolve. While Johnson and Clinton were both impeached, there was no crisis regarding the constitution. With Nixon, however, there was because he prevented an investigation into his crimes. The crisis was so severe that Congress went on to restrict the president’s authority.
2. Donald Trump May Have Violated the Constitution
It is unknown to the American public the details of the Mueller report; the details of the president’s dealings, particularly regarding his real estate company and his contacts with Russian officials, may be a violation of the constitution. As more information and events unfold, they may lead to a call for the impeachment of the president. However, keep in mind that House representatives have already introduced articles of impeachment against him multiple times.
Even though the Mueller report came out, Trump may be impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives. However, that does not mean that he will be convicted and removed from office. He is still actively supported by his party, which still controls the Senate. For him to be removed from office, he would have to violate the trust of the Republican party.
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