Impeaching a President: 4 Facts About Impeachment That May Surprise You

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

It seems as though every time a president does something of a controversial or unpopular nature, such as sending military forces to a foreign country, opposition voices can be heard calling for impeachment proceedings. In some instances, predictions of impeachment proceedings have been made even before a president-elect took office.

As common as it is to hear or read about calls for the impeachment of the president, it is surprising how much people do not know or understand about the process and its place in the 230 year history of the United States since the drafting of the Constitution. Here are four facts about impeachment of the president that will probably surprise you.

#1: Impeachment is a two-step process

Article II, section 4 of the Constitution provides for the removal of a president, vice president and other "civil officers" of the United States. There are three grounds upon which removal proceedings may be commenced:

  • Bribery
  • Treason
  • Felonies and Misdemeanors

The impeachment process begins with a vote in the House of Representatives on the formal accusation or charge giving rise to the call for impeachment. Impeachment requires a majority vote of the members of the House, but this is just the first step of a two-step process.

A successful impeachment vote by the House is a formal accusation or charge against the president or other official. It does not, however, result in the removal of the person from public office. The second step in the process is a trial in the Senate presided over by the vice president in cases involving any public official other than the president. Presidential impeachment trials are presided over by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the conclusion of the trial, a vote is held in much the same manner as a trial jury votes to convict or acquit following a trial in a criminal court. Two-thirds of the members of the Senate must vote in favor of conviction for a president to be removed from office through impeachment.

#2: Presidents have been impeached, but none have been convicted

The House has voted to impeach officials on 60 different occasions, but only two of the people impeached were presidents: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Of all of the officials impeached by a vote of the House, only eight federal judges have actually been convicted in the Senate and removed from office. Neither Andrew Johnson nor Bill Clinton was convicted by the Senate.

President Andrew Johnson drew the ire of opposition leaders in Congress over his efforts to fire the Secretary of War following passage by Congress of a law prohibiting the president from removing public officials without the approval of the Senate. The test of wills between the president and Congress resulted in President Johnson's impeachment. His on the impeachment charge ended with the Senate falling one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for a conviction.

President Bill Clinton faced allegations of obstruction of justice and perjury following a House vote to impeach him. A well-publicized investigation by an independent counsel appointed by the Congress into Clinton's real estate dealings before taking office led to disclosures of infidelity and sexual misconduct while in office. His trial ended with an acquittal of the president after Republicans in the Senate failed to gather the votes needed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to convict him.

#3: Contrary to what some people might believe, President Nixon was not impeached

The burglary at the Washington, D.C., offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in 1972 drew international headlines and led to an investigation by the House of Representatives. The hearings in the House Judiciary Committee disclosed a possible link between the White House and the individuals who committed the burglary.

The congressional investigation ended with the Judiciary Committee issuing articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon alleging, among other things, perjury, bribery and obstruction of justice. Before the accusations could be presented to the House for an impeachment vote, President Nixon submitted his resignation from office in the summer of 1974.

#4: Political rivalry does not amount to grounds for impeachment

Those charged with the responsibility of drafting what would eventually become the Constitution were mindful of and feared the potential for the abuse of power by the executive branch of government headed by the president. Although the system of checks and balances built into the Constitution was intended to prevent any one branch of government from abusing its power, the impeachment process was added to provide for the removal of public officials on specific and limited grounds.

The inclusion of "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" along with bribery and treason into section 4 of Article II of the Constitution added grounds for impeachment that could be subject to interpretation and possible abuse for partisan reasons. Questions of partisan politics influencing impeachment proceedings could be raised about the cases brought against President Johnson and President Clinton, but in both instances, Congress acted based upon accusations of violations of law that would fit under into the category of criminal activity if proven.

The fact that no president has been removed from office through impeachment would appear to stand as proof that as much as partisan politics might factor into the process, the system incorporated into the Constitution has worked for more than two centuries. The adoption of rules of evidence and procedures governing the impeachment trial in the Senate include the right of the accused to be represented by counsel, the right to cross-exam witnesses and to present witnesses and evidence in defense of the charges are designed to incorporate fairness and due process into the proceedings.

Impeachment of a president is a drastic measure that has been used with restraint throughout the history of the U.S. One of the reasons for this is that the time and expense required to complete the investigation and hearings in the House of Representatives and the subsequent trial in the Senate weigh against using the process for anything other than cases of serious official misconduct.

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