Four U.S. presidents have faced impeachment inquiries — but only two have been impeached.
It is very much to be determined whether President Donald Trump will be impeached. The last attempt to impeach a U.S. president was Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, and before that, Richard Nixon in the mid-70s, and before that…Andrew Johnson, a whopping 151 years ago.
In order to impeach a president, the House has to pass articles of impeachment — charges, essentially — by a simple majority. If the House passes at least one of these articles, the president has been impeached — but that doesn’t remove them from office.
For that, the president must be put on trial by the Senate, and a conviction requires a two-thirds supermajority.
So how did the last three impeachment proceedings break down, and which presidents were actually impeached? Let’s take a look.
The Impeachment Of President Andrew Johnson, 1868
The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson began on February 24, 1868.
Johnson assumed the presidency three years earlier, just 42 days after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The Civil War had just killed more than 600,000 people, and white leaders in the south were still staunchly opposed to granting rights to black Americans.
Both the House and Senate were two-thirds “Radical” Republican, however, and this congressional majority established quite clearly that Reconstruction would happen — with the enforcement of the U. S. military. For a time, they thought Johnson was on their side as well.
But then Johnson’s true feelings toward Reconstruction came out. It turned out that Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, opposed political rights for freedmen and wanted to grant clemency to any former Confederates who were willing to pledge a loyalty oath to the United States. All the southern states had to do to reenter the Union was ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
The Radical Republicans thought that Johnson’s plan would let the South off too easily. With a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress, they pushed through two new amendments the South would have to ratify — the 14th and 15th — which granted full political rights, including the right to vote, to all freedmen.
They also enacted a sneakier law in 1867 tailor-made for Johnson called the Tenure of Office Act. The law restricted the president from removing certain officials from office without Senate approval.
Defiant, Johnson fired his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton — the only member of his cabinet against his Reconstruction policy — during the Congressional recess in the summer of 1867. Johnson replaced Stanton with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, but when the Senate sought to reinstate Stanton a few months later, Grant realized the hornet’s nest he was in and resigned.
Enraged at Congress, Johnson ignored Stanton’s appointment and picked Maj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to fill the secretary position. This was a direct violation of the Tenure of Office Act, and articles of impeachment were drawn up within days.
There were, in total, 11 articles of impeachment drafted by the House, almost all related to Johnson’s actions around Stanton and the Tenure of Office Act, though with the notable charge of making speeches in an attempt to bring “disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach [to] the Congress of the United States,” and to “impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress.”
The House voted to impeach Johnson on Feb. 24, 1868. On March 5, Johnson’s Senate trial began, with thousands of Americans desperate to nab tickets for the entertainment event of the year.
On May 16, however, the effort to convict Johnson failed by just one vote in the Senate. Republicans still hated him, but enough were compelled to preserve the integrity of the presidential office. Johnson served the rest of his term, albeit with an almost total lack of credibility and power.
The Impeachment Inquiry-Turned-Resignation Of President Richard Nixon, 1973-74
Technically, President Richard Nixon’s Watergate saga didn’t end in impeachment, since he resigned before it could get to that point, but by the time Nixon resigned, the House and the Senate had collected enough evidence to move forward with the impeachment process.
Nixon’s impeachment proceedings largely stemmed from his complicity in the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D. C. The Nixon administration tried at every step to prevent any cooperation with the House, spawning a constitutional crisis.
But it turned out that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded private conversations in the Oval Office, and that some of those recordings explicitly showed Nixon himself trying to use his presidential powers to halt the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.
On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court finally forced Nixon to turn over the tapes. The tapes were damning, and if Nixon had stuck around long enough to proceed to an impeachment trial, then he would have had to contend with a majority-Democratic House and Senate. It was clear Nixon would be impeached, and soon.
While many were considered, the three articles of impeachment that were approved by the House Judiciary Committee were obstruction of justice (related to the Watergate break-ins and its attempted coverup by Nixon and his staff, as well as withholding the infamous Nixon White House Tapes), abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.
But the full House wouldn’t get to vote on impeachment, as Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body,” Nixon said in a televised speech that attempted to spin his presidency as a win for the U.S. “To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God’s grace be with you in all the days ahead.”
At noon the next day, he gave the reins of the presidency to Vice President Gerald Ford. Ford pardoned Nixon just a month later, protecting him from potential criminal indictment or prosecution.
The Impeachment Of President Bill Clinton, 1998-1999
Bill Clinton’s presidency nearly ended when the Republican-controlled House passed two articles of impeachment.
The House’s charges were largely informed by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who was originally appointed in 1994 to investigate a real estate company called Whitewater, in which the Clintons had invested in the 1970s and 80s.
But the investigation eventually expanded to include allegations of sexual harassment against President Clinton, after former Arkansas government employee Paula Jones filed a lawsuit against the president in May 1994 for propositioning her while he was governor of the state.
And then, in January 1998, the public caught wind of a totally separate scandal that had been brewing behind closed doors for months: Clinton’s alleged affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton’s and Lewinsky’s sexual acts had been consensual, but according to Starr’s report, Clinton had instructed her to lie to investigators about their affair. What’s more, Starr contended that Clinton himself had lied to a grand jury when he told them “There’s nothing going on” between him and Lewinsky.
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Clinton later clarified. “If ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….If someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
To Starr, Clinton’s careful wording amounted to a lie — and House Republicans agreed. They drew up and approved articles of impeachment declaring Clinton had committed perjury and obstruction of justice. To Clinton’s supporters, however, Starr’s years-long, $80 million investigation was much ado over two relatively minor charges.
The House approved two out of four articles of impeachment, almost completely along party lines, on Dec. 19, 1998. In the Senate, which was also Republican-controlled, enough members of the opposite party voted against impeachment to keep Clinton in office. On Feb. 12, 1999, the overall vote tally was 50-50 on the obstruction of justice charge and 45-55 not guilty on the perjury charge.
There were some civil repercussions for Clinton, including the inability to practice law for five years and some fines. In December 1999, one year after Clinton’s impeachment, two-thirds of the American public said the impeachment trials had been harmful to the country.
After all, Clinton’s transgressions weren’t as objectionable as, say, offering to trade U.S. military support for “digging up the dirt” on political opponents.
The Impeachment Inquiry Of President Donald Trump, 2019
President Donald Trump is just the fourth U.S. president to face the impeachment process. And if the Senate votes to remove him from office, he’ll be the first president to be directly ousted by Congress.
Trump’s opponents have been calling for his impeachment practically since day one of his presidency, but the current impeachment inquiry was kick-started when an anonymous whistleblower submitted a letter to the intelligence community’s inspector general alleging that Trump had urged Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 presidential race, and his son Hunter.
The whistleblower alleged in the August 12 letter that, “after an initial exchange of pleasantries, the president used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests. Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the president’s 2020 reelection bid.”
This all supposedly happened in a phone call on July 25, at a time when Trump was holding up $400 million worth of military aid to Ukraine.
When news of the phone call broke, the White House released a transcript of the phone call. In the transcript, right after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky brings up the military aid, Trump asks for a “favor” and proceeds to bring up the Robert Mueller investigation and then Biden. To many, it appeared Trump was establishing a quid pro quo.
On the heels of the Ukraine revelations, Trump asked China to investigate Biden on national television.
The White House has stated publicly that it will not cooperate with impeachment proceedings, and has sought to keep current and former government officials from testifying to the three House committees investigating the Trump-Ukraine scandal. Meanwhile, House Democrats have drawn fire for conducting witness interviews exclusively behind closed doors (so the witnesses don’t coordinate their responses, Democrats say).
It remains to be seen whether the House will indeed vote to impeach Trump. And if it does, will the Senate concur? (Likely no, given
many Senate Republicans’ loyalty to the president, but it’s possible.) There’s an election next year, however, and many Republican Senate seats are up for a vote. Who knows what’ll be politically expedient in November 2020.
After learning about the impeached presidents of U.S. history, take a look at 21 shocking things American presidents have said (and done). Then, learn about members of the KKK who became senators and Supreme Court justices.