Impeachment and removal
Impeachment and removal are the two steps in taking a high government official, such as a president or a judge, from his position. It is typically used in cases of malfeasance (see also recall election).
The first step, impeachment, is a formal accusation by a simple majority of the House of Representatives. This vote leaves the accused in office, while he is "tried" by the Senate. A two-thirds majority vote in the Senate is necessary in order to remove someone from office.
In all of American history, "Two Presidents, one Senator, one cabinet officer, and fifteen judges have been impeached, and of those only eight judges have been convicted and removed from office." Inclusion of the impeachment clause in the U.S. Constitution was supported by Benjamin Franklin.
The United States House of Representatives has "sole power of impeachment." The House votes on articles of impeachment for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” If that passes by a simple majority, the President is not yet removed from office, until (and unless) the next step is completed.
The impeachment case is sent to the United States Senate for trial, over which the Chief Justice of the United States presides. If the Senate votes by a two-thirds majority to convict, then the person will be removed from office.
President Gerald Ford described what an impeachable offense is:
|“||An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.||”|
Use in American history
Impeachment in 19th Century America
By 1804, Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans had control of Congress and set their sights on removing Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. The House of Representatives impeached him, and trial began with the Senate as the jury. His prosecutor was John Randolph, a partisan Jeffersonian who was distantly related to the Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall. 25 out of 34 Senators were Jeffersonians, so conviction and removal of the Federalist Chase for his political biases seemed likely.
But the effort failed. During the trial Randolph himself criticized Jefferson over a separate issue, the infamous Yazoo land fraud in Georgia, an issue that split Jeffersonians. Meanwhile, the case against Chase amounted to little more than some intemperate remarks he made while sitting as trial judge in a grand jury proceeding. The Senators were unimpressed, and at most 19/34 voted to convict on any of the charges, far short of the requisite 2/3rd. The independence of the judiciary was established by this failed effort to remove a Supreme Court justice. However, the episode did encourage future justices not to engage directly in politics. No effort to impeach a Supreme Court justice has since made any progress.
Andrew Johnson (1868)
After the Civil War, although the fighting between armies officially was stopped, the country remained deeply divided, with emotions running high. Nearly every family had suffered greatly or lost loved ones in the war. However, big questions remained over empowerment of recently freed slaves, and what to do with those who had engaged in rebellion against the United States.
President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat elected vice president in 1864 at the height of the war on a national unity ticket with Republican Abraham Lincoln, was in constant conflict with the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress. The media called Republicans "radical" because they advocated full equality and civil rights for blacks, and wanted to punish Confederates and Southern slaveholders who engaged in open rebellion.
As president after Lincoln's assassination, Johnson handed out numerous pardons to former slaveholders, Confederate officers, and the rank and file. This put him at odds with Lincoln's Secretary of War, who had been confirmed by the Senate, vowing to carry out the Republicans' civil rights efforts for Blacks in occupied military districts of the South after the war.
President Johnson vetoed Republican civil rights legislation and even called their leaders "traitors". Flush from winning the war, Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (PA) and Sen. Charles Sumner (MA) were not about to back down on the agenda of delivering equality for former black slaves and punishing Democrats who ripped society apart and tried to destroy the Union. In 1856, shortly before the outbreak of war, Sumner delivered a speech critical of South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which legalized slavery in Western territories north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was symptomatic of how bad the situation in the United States had deteriorated in the debate over slavery, both North and South, among the people and their elected leaders. Butler's outraged nephew Preston Brooks beat Sumner violently with a cane on the floor of the U.S Senate.
When the House of Representatives impeached President Johnson by an overwhelming vote of 126 to 47, his ouster appeared to be a fait accompli. President Johnson had violated the Tenure in Office Act by dismissing the Secretary of War. The key issue was if a President had the power to fire a cabinet secretary confirmed by the Senate without the Senate's consent. Johnson was also intemperate in his name-calling of key senators. In addressing the jury of 54 senators, the prosecutor referred to President Johnson as an "accidental Chief" and "the elect of an assassin." Witnesses testified for both the prosecution and the defense.
The prosecutors – called “managers” in impeachment trials – were confident of victory. Manager Thaddeus Stevens described President Johnson as the "wretched man, standing at bay, surrounded by a cordon of living men, each with the axe of an executioner uplifted for his just punishment." Manager John Bingham brought the public galleries to their feet with his oratory: "May God forbid that the future historian shall record of this day's proceedings, that by reason of the failure of the legislative power of the people to triumph over the usurpations of an apostate President, the fabric of American empire fell and perished from the earth....I ask you to consider that we stand this day pleading for the violated majesty of the law, by the graves of half a million of martyred hero-patriots who made death beautiful by the sacrifice of themselves for their country, the Constitution and the laws, and who, by their sublime example, have taught us all to obey the law; that none are above the law;... and that position, however high, patronage, however powerful, cannot be permitted to shelter crime to the peril of the republic."
2/3rd vote was necessary for conviction, and it all turned on Republican Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas. Like real jurors, he spoke to no one during the proceedings and no one knew which way he was leaning. But he voted "not guilty," and President Johnson was acquitted by one vote. The Radical Republicans were defeated, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow arose, and Republicans shied away from civil rights issues for the next 100 years in the face of Klan terror and media opposition. Ross was characterized as a hero in John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage, for resisting Republican civil rights reform efforts for Blacks in the South, and working with Democrats to rebuild the Democratic party after its defeat in the Civil War. Andrew Johnson did not run for re-election and died a drunk.
Later the Tenure of Office Act was repealed, and all presidential appointments - including the FBI Director and Ambassadors - now serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired without cause at any moment.
Richard Nixon (1974)
Nixon came into office in 1968 burdened by a vendetta dating back to the imprisonment of New Deal golden boy Alger Hiss in 1948 and the Amerasia scandal involving the arrest of a Washington Post reporter on espionage charges.
Until 1974, no impeachment proceedings that managed to pass the first stage, the Judiciary Committee, had occurred since the Johnson trial over a hundred years earlier. At the time, congressmen and their staffs were unfamiliar with the law and proceedings involved with impeachment, and needed to research the question. Most Americans thought of impeachment as something quaint and bizarre in the history books.
The House of Representatives voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry against Richard M. Nixon, on charges of obstruction of justice in connection with the Watergate affair. The Judiciary Committee was authorized by the full House to investigate allegations and subpoenaed President Nixon's secret recordings of Oval Office conversations with subordinates. Nixon resisted the subpoenas, claiming Executive privilege, and appealed to the Supreme Court.
On July 27, 1974, the Committee on the Judiciary voted to recommend three articles of impeachment. The articles concerned his obstruction of justice during the Watergate investigations. When the Supreme Court ruled against Nixon's claim of Executive privilege, stating that an actual crime had been committed and Executive privilege could not be used to cover a crime, Nixon resigned. Defying a Supreme Court order would certainly constitute a high crime and impeachable offense. Nixon resigned from the presidency on August 9, 1974, after key Congressional allies told him his fate was all but assured. Thus, Nixon was never actually impeached by a vote of the full House.
Bill Clinton (1998)
President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to testimony he had given in a civil lawsuit a former Arkansas government employee had brought for sexual harassment. Perjury before the federal judiciary is a criminal offense. He was acquitted by the Senate on February 12, 1999, on a party-line vote.
President Clinton was doing well in the polls and ready to pick his successor for the White House by late 1998. His leadership enabled the Democratic Party to do surprisingly well in the mid-term elections, and President Clinton was seeking to leave a lasting legacy.
The House of Representatives impeached him for making false statements under oath, which is perjury, and trial was scheduled for the Senate in 1999. First Lady Hillary Clinton accused her opponents of being part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband. House impeachment managers introduced witness depositions, including credible evidence from a Jane Doe #5 (Juanita Brodderick) that Bill Clinton had raped her. Democratic Senators all lined up behind President Clinton, promising to vote for acquittal.
Republicans enjoyed a majority in the Senate but lacked votes anywhere close to the requisite 2/3rd majority to convict. President Clinton was a lame-duck at that point anyway, and the real battle was over his ability to influence politics beyond his term.
The managers of the impeachment presented their case, but the Senate prevented them from calling key witnesses such as Clinton's closest aides. The procedural rules hamstrung the trial and served to protect the president. Without the presentation of the full case, President Clinton easily survived the final vote. Democrats established a precedent in the impeachment process that rape allegations and perjury before a federal judge do not rise to the level of an impeachable offense as a high crime and misdemeanor.
But the victory was Pyrrhic. The Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, Al Gore, felt he had to distance himself from Clinton and that probably made the difference on Election Day. Since then, Clinton has had little success in campaigning for candidates, failing with Governor Gray Davis in California in the recall. Hillary Clinton, pollsters choice to run in 2004, apparently felt it was too soon to make an attempt. The political ramifications of the impeachment trial continue.
Donald Trump (2019)
Democrats had failed to gain authority from a vote of the full House to begin an impeachment investigation and designate a committee of jurisdiction with subpoena power to override administration claims of Executive privilege. Article I Section 4 of the Constitution grants the sole power of impeachment to the House, and not to an individual member such as the Speaker to declare an "impeachment inquiry" by proclamation. Without authorization by a vote of the full House, the so-called "impeachment inquiry" committees are limited to their regular oversight function and lack judicial enforcement of subpoenas to override Executive privilege in their "impeachment inquiry".
Despite the absence of legal authority from the full House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi designated House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff to conduct an investigation behind closed doors. An anonymous accuser came forward with third hand hearsay alleging the President had engaged in a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian president in exchange for arms and aid. In an unprecedented action, the president was not allowed counsel and the minority was denied rebuttal witnesses and independent cross-examination of disgruntled civil servants. Neither committee, not the Judiciary Committee nor the Intelligence Committee, was ever authorized by a Resolution of the full House to conduct an impeachment inquiry and gather evidence.
The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives voted on Friday, 13th of December 2019, to approve two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump based on the findings of Schiff's committee. No actual crime was alleged in either article. The articles were approved by a partisan vote of the full House, with bi-partisan opposition. One Democrat House member switched parties after the Democratic House's naked abuse of power.
The Senate ultimately rejected the claim of Obstruction of Congress based on violations of the due process rights of the accused and lack of authority in the sham impeachment "investigation." As to the Abuse of Power article, Senators determined President Trump acted properly while combating corruption. He was acquitted on February 5, 2020.
In colloquial English, speakers frequently fail to distinguish between the accusation by the House, and the (possible) subsequent removal by the Senate. Thus when someone says, "That official was impeached," you may not know whether they meant charged but not convicted or removed from office.
Two US presidents have been impeached but neither was removed from office.
- Sumner's Senate floor speech accused proponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of the "rape of virgin territory" by bringing slavery into Kansas. Sumner said of Butler, "The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, slavery."
- Kennedy published the book Profiles in Courage in 1956; Kennedy, a Northern Democrat, cuddled up to Southern racists and segregationists by voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.