What is impeachment and how is it used? What happens when a president gets impeached? Although the term may sound common today, only three presidents in the history of the US have been impeached, or in one case, resigned because of the vote to impeach. Out of those presidents, none has ever been forced to leave office due to impeachment.
The process is not taken likely. Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution stipulates that a president “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
First, the members of the House will debate and then vote on whether to bring charges to the sitting president. To proceed, a simple majority of the House’s 435 members is needed. If the House approves the resolution, then the Senate will hold a trial with the chief justice of the US Supreme Court presiding. To convict and remove a president, a two-thirds majority vote is required. To date, no sitting president has been removed from office this way.
President Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson was the 17th president of the US and the first to be impeached. He had taken over the role of president after his predecessor Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. In 1868, a dispute between the Democrat Johnson and the Republican-controlled House over Reconstruction after the Civil War began hostilities between the parties. However, it was when the president attempted to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the House decided to seek impeachment.
In May 1868, the Senate was not able to convict Johnson and the trial was adjourned.
President Richard Nixon
It would be another 100 years before the House tried to impeach a president after Johnson. In 1974, members of the House initiated the process against Richard Nixon, the 37th president, and authorized the Judiciary Committee to investigate if there were grounds to impeach him of high crimes and misdemeanors. Most of the charges related to the infamous Watergate scandal, which occurred in 1972.
“Watergate” refers to the Washington, DC building where several burglars were arrested in the office of the Democratic National Committee. The burglars had been caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents. This was during the presidential election campaign and Nixon took aggressive steps to cover up the crimes. Nixon was never actually impeached. When it became obvious Congress would vote in favor of impeachment, the former president resigned, preventing the impeachment from going forward.
President Bill Clinton
The Republican-controlled House voted in October 1998 to begin impeachment proceedings against the 42nd president, Bill Clinton, regarding his inappropriate relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The relationship wasn’t the main reason for the decision, but rather the discrepancies between two different testimonies to a federal grand jury. In January of that year, Clinton had denied any relationship with Lewinsky. Then in August, the former president testified that he had an inappropriate relationship with the intern.
On Dec. 19, 1998, Clinton was impeached on grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. However, on Feb. 12, the Senate voted to acquit him and Clinton finished out the rest of his presidential term in office.
President Donald Trump
President Trump was the third US president to be impeached. In August 2019, a whistleblower complained to House Democrats that Trump had had an inappropriate call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. During the phone conversation, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the actions of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in that country, since there had been allegations of corrupt dealings. Since Joe Biden was at that time a potential Democrat candidate for president in the next election, the party accused Trump of abusing his position to try to dig up dirt on his political opponents and gain an advantage in the election. The House voted to impeach Trump, but he was acquitted in the Senate. Both votes fell along party lines, with Democrats voting against the president while his own party, the Republicans, voted in the president’s favor.