We have elections, and then sometimes, we have United States presidential impeachment proceedings.
This right of Congress to evict the incumbent president for high crimes and misdemeanors has made the news a lot in recent times. Prior to 1998, in over two centuries of American presidencies, the power had been used just once. Since then, it’s happened three times. In total, it has happened to three presidents: two Democratic, and one Republican twice.
Some historical context and discussion is needed on those impeachments; it always is.
First United States Presidential Impeachment: Andrew Johnson (D)
Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, was assassinated shortly following the Civil War’s conclusion in 1865. Scarcely getting to lead the nation in times of peace, the reins were turned over to Andrew Johnson, the 17th president. Johnson, a former Tennessee senator and a “War Democrat” who ran with Lincoln on a national unity ticket in 1864, now found himself in charge.
A president of the opposing party, Johnson clashed frequently with the Republican Congress. By the 1866 midterm vote, the GOP had massive majorities in both the US House and US Senate. The abolitionist so-called “Radical” Republicans were running the show, and Southerner Johnson’s sympathetic, less-confrontational plans for Reconstruction did not sit well with them. For what it’s worth, not all of Johnson’s cabinet (inherited from Lincoln) sat well with him, either.
Specifically, two events contributed to Johnson’s impeachment. First, in 1867, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senatorial advice and consent for the president to remove a cabinet official. The second event was Johnson’s dismissal of Edwin Stanton, Lincoln and Johnson’s Radical Republican Secretary of War.1 This violated the questionably-constitutional Tenure of Office Act, and Johnson was impeached just days later.
The impeachment trial in the Senate lasted over two months, but in the end, Johnson was successful. On May 26, 1868, late into his only presidential term, the Senate failed to convict him on any of the three articles of impeachment before them. Republicans in the Senate needed 36 “guilty” votes out of 54 to convict Johnson, but on all three articles, they got just 35.2 Had one vote swung from “not guilty” on any article, Johnson would have been removed from office and Benjamin Wade, Senate president pro tempore, would have become the 18th president.3 It would not be until the 20th Century that the presidential line of succession would go to the House Speaker after the vice president; Johnson did not have the latter in his cabinet.
Second United States Presidential Impeachment: Bill Clinton (D)
Anyone who lived through the 1990s remembers what a time it was. The internet and cell phones were beginning to take off, classic sitcoms like Seinfeld were on the air, and we had the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Bill Clinton was elected to a second term as president in 1996, but even since he was elected in 1992, he got no love from Republicans. The “Republican Revolution” in 1994 saw the Democrats lose both chambers of Congress, including the House for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich and the GOP kept a close eye on Clinton.
While the Whitewater scandal was being investigated, the president’s sexual propensities were becoming more well-known as his presidency continued. From Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky, allegations came out about Clinton. In the case of Lewinsky, Clinton denied in sworn testimony that they ever had any sort of sexual relationship while she was working in the federal government.4 He also famously pointed his finger to the camera and said on television “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Clinton later admitted that this was not the case and that he and Lewinsky did have an inappropriate relationship. Republicans saw their opportunity. Late in 1998, an impeachment inquiry was opened against Clinton with allegations that he perjured himself and obstructed justice by asking others to cover up the relationship. Ultimately, after a modest GOP setback in the 1998 midterm elections, the majority Republicans went ahead with impeachment. On December 19, 1998, the House passed two of four impeachment articles, making Clinton the first impeached president in 130 years. (Note: Richard Nixon almost certainly would have been impeached over Watergate had he not resigned in 1974.)
The Senate got the case at the start of 1999 and a new Congress. With the trial lasting for just over a month, the Senate voted on both articles on February 12, 1999. The perjury article failed with 45 “guilty” votes, and the obstruction article fell with 50 votes; 67 were required. Five Republicans crossed over to vote “not guilty” on both articles.
Bill Clinton, acquitted of the charges, served out the remaining two years of his presidency with high approval ratings and the effort to remove Clinton was seen to have backfired.5
Third United States Presidential Impeachment: Donald Trump (R)
From the time Donald Trump was elected president in a surprise 2016 victory, the found himself earning the daily ire of Democrats. After all, presidents beloved by the opposition tend not to get impeached. Some Congressional Democrats made it clear early in his single term that they would enjoy nothing more than to get rid of Trump, and a few like Democrat Al Green tried as early as 2017.6 However, following the 2016 elections, Democrats were in the minority in both houses of Congress.
This changed in 2018 when the “Blue Wave” hit. Democrats gained 41 seats in the House in Trump’s midterm year, putting Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair. Instantly, the threat of impeachment grew for Trump, but Pelosi was hesitant to back these efforts from her party’s left.
The forthcoming impeachment of Trump in 2019 stemmed in part from the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as a scandal involving Ukraine and Joe Biden’s family. It was alleged that Trump and his administration pressured Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new outsider president, into digging up information on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his dealings in the country. A quid pro quo was alleged, and the purpose of this information would be to help Trump in his 2020 election campaign against Biden, who was thought to be (and was) the Democratic frontrunner.7
Later in 2019, the House took up impeachment after Pelosi gave the effort her blessing.8 The Judiciary Committee ultimately referred two articles for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Trump was impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives on December 18, 2019, almost 21 years to the day from the prior impeachment of Clinton.
The effort stood little chance in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lasting only a few weeks, the impeachment trial in the Senate ended with an acquittal of Trump on both charges. Utah Senator Mitt Romney was the only Republican in either chamber to break ranks and vote to convict on one article.
Trump would go on to run for re-election in 2020, which became the subject of his historic second impeachment.
Fourth United States Presidential Impeachment: Donald Trump (R)
Following the 2020 presidential election, won by the aforementioned Joe Biden, Donald Trump made numerous, near-daily, and public allegations of voter fraud. His legal team challenged the results in multiple states, losing almost every case put before a judge.9 However, his efforts continued through the meeting of the Electoral College in December and up until the counting of the Electoral College votes on January 6, 2021.
Trump made it clear in the days leading up to the Electoral College certification in Congress that he wanted Vice President Mike Pence, the joint session’s presiding officer, to reject some states’ certificates of the electoral vote. The president privately and publicly pressured Pence, but ultimately, on the day of the count, Pence stated that he did not believe he had the constitutional authority to reject any electors in his largely ceremonial role.10
Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress lined up to formally object to the electoral votes of a handful of states, including Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. This included senators such as Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas. With both House and Senate members concurring to the objections, each body would be forced into two hours of debate on each disputed state.
While this was happening on January 6, President Trump held a rally in Washington where he and others spoke to a crowd of thousands of supporters. His message was to stop the 2020 election from being stolen by the Democrats, and he would later urge his supporters to go to the Capitol Building to protest and make their voices heard.11
During the Electoral College count on that Wednesday afternoon, specifically during an objection debate, an angry mob stormed the Capitol. Both chambers went into an extended lockdown, there were widespread accounts of vandalism and stolen property, and several people died as a result of the incident. Order on Capitol Hill would not be restored for hours, and in the midst of the destruction, Congress finished its count in the middle of the night on January 7, with Pence certifying the election for Joe Biden.
Calls to impeach Trump again rang fast and furious amongst Democratic members, claiming Trump incited an insurrection. The movement caught lightning in a bottle, and within less than a week, the newly sworn-in Congress had one article of impeachment before it for “incitement of insurrection.” With ten Republicans voting in favor, the article passed the Democratic House on January 13, 2021. Donald Trump became the first president to be impeached twice, a little over a year after his first impeachment.
The Senate trial is still pending, and is very likely to occur after Trump has left office.
What All Impeachments Have In Common
Despite the different times and different natures of the accusations, there are several common threads amongst these impeachments.
- An opposition Congress impeaching a president (whom they despised) of the other party.
- None, however, saw a straight party-line vote in both houses of Congress.
- No impeachment yet has resulted in a conviction on any article, with the two-thirds requirement being a high bar.
Presidential Impeachment Further Reading
- History.com Editors, “President Andrew Johnson Impeached,” HISTORY, original publish date 9 February 2010, last updated 20 February 2020
- United States Senate, “The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) President of the United States,” United States Senate, accessed 14 January 2021
- NCC Staff, “The man whose impeachment vote saved Andrew Johnson,” National Constitution Center Constitution Daily, 16 May 2020
- Andrew Glass, “Bill Clinton testifies before grand jury, Aug. 17, 1998,” Politico, 16 August 2016
- Russell Riley, “The Clinton impeachment and its fallout,” University of Virginia Miller Center, accessed 14 January 2021
- Kyle Cheney, “Trump impeachment vote fails overwhelmingly,” Politico, 6 December 2017
- Aaron Blake, Philip Bump, and Irfan Uraizee, “Timeline: Trump impeachment inquiry,” Washington Post, 18 November 2019
- Nicholas Fandos, “Nancy Pelosi Announces Formal Impeachment Inquiry of Trump,” New York Times, 24 September 2019
- William Cummings, Joey Garrison, and Jim Sergent, “By the numbers: President Donald Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the election,” USA Today, 6 January 2021
- Dan Mangan and Kevin Breuninger, “Mike Pence rejects Trump’s call to overturn Biden election,” CNBC, 6 January 2021
- Associated Press, “Transcript of Trump’s Speech at Rally Before US Capitol Riot,” US News & World Report, 13 January 2021