The U.S. Presidents That Were Impeached and Why

Impeachment is the term used for firing the president or any other elected official. It usually happens when the official has abused his/her power or has severely misbehaved. Many countries use impeachment to rid themselves of a an unfit president. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the men that wrote the Constitution of the United States, put it: impeachment and removal are necessary when the Executive has “rendered himself obnoxious.” His fellow co-writer of the Constitution, James Madison, said impeachment was “indispensable” to protect the people against “the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” So the Founding Fathers included the figure of impeachment in the Constitution to give the people a means to defend themselves against a wayward president.

Many U.S. presidents have been under impeachment investigations, but only 2 and a half have actually been impeached. Two went to trial, the third was going to be formally charged but… well, let’s not ruin the surprise.

Here are the 2 (and a half) U.S. presidents that have been impeached:

If you need a refresher on what is impeachment, read All about impeachment: your 9 burning questions answered.

1. Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. 1868.

President Andrew Johnson was not the first U.S. president to be investigated, but he was the first to actually be impeached.

Background: the Reconstruction
Black and white photograph of a man in formal clothes.
Andrew Johnson became president when the Civil War had just ended. c.1875. (Photo: Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)

Johnson was president during rough times. The country was just coming out of the Civil War, and it was in upheaval. Only 25 states were part of the Union (the U.S.), for 11 Southern states had left it. And although the separatist states had recently been defeated, they had not been readmitted to the Union. And there was disagreement in the North about how to handle those states and their reinsertion.

Republican Abraham Lincoln, who preceded Johnson as president, had chosen a lenient policy. He did not want to aggravate the defeated states any further, hoping to ease their reinsertion into the Union. But a group in government, they called themselves Radical Republicans, did not mind aggravating what they considered conquered territories. They wanted to militarize the South, control their government and laws, establish universal suffrage (for males).

So Lincoln and Congress were confronted. Then, to Congress’ dismay, Lincoln won his second term as president in 1865 with Andrew Johnson as his vice president. When Lincoln was murdered 45 days into his second term, Johnson became president.

President Johnson and Congress do not see eye to eye

In the same year that Johnson became president, 1865, the Civil War ended. At the beginning the Radicals thought Johnson was going to be tough on the rebellious states. But the new president opted for a conciliatory policy, which included a general amnesty for most Southerners. President and Congress were again in opposing bands. And their confrontation escalated the next 3 years, with both Johnson and the Radicals proving they lacked diplomatic and negotiating skills.

Old black and white photo. A group of men sit and stand at a banquet. The table is elegantly set. The men wear formal clothes.
President Johnson during his speaking tour. He sits in the center, next to a man with white beard. On his left is Gral. Grant. 1866. (Photo: Public domain)

Every time the House of Representatives tried to pass a new law regarding the Reconstruction of the South, Johnson vetoed it. For example he vetoed a bill that extended the lifespan of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Lincoln had established the bureau as a temporary solution. Its job was to help the 4 million newly freed people (slavery had just been abolished) insert themselves into society. The bureau provided education, food rations, clothes, and helped the freed people get jobs.

The House too tried to veto the president’s moves. Although during the first years they weren’t able to get the majority of votes needed to veto his actions.

Both sides kept blocking each other’s initiatives. So when the House’s elections were coming up, Johnson decided to tour the country to ask the citizens to vote for congressmen who supported him. But his plan backfired. His enemies planted rabble-rousers among the crowds. And Johnson’s temper got the best of him. He ended up shouting at the crowds, alienating the voters. Even the newspapers that had previously supported him were horrified by his undignified behavior. When elections came, the voters filled the House of Representatives with his opponents.

The Executive and the Legislative outsmarting each other

The situation between President and Congress was reaching a boiling point. With their new majority the Radicals could pass their laws and veto the president’s initiatives. The Reconstruction was now squarely in the House’s hands. Yet, the House had turned it into a military operation, and Johnson, as president, was the commander-in-chief- of the military. The problem was that to do anything as commander, he needed the support of his Secretary of War, who in this case was Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical Republican.

Congress knew he would try to dismiss Stanton, so in March 1867 they issued the Tenure of Office Act that stated that before removing a member of his cabinet the president had to get senatorial approval. And while the Senate was not in session, the president could only suspend, not fire, a Cabinet member.

Johnson, of course, waited for the Senate to go on vacations and then, on August 5, 1867, suspended Stanton. As a temporary replacement he named General Ulysses S. Grant. He wanted Grant to be Secretary until he could find a replacement that the Senate would approve of. But the Senate met in December 1867 and reinstated Stanton. Grant stepped down.

Andrew Johnson’s last straw
From Harper’s weekly, 1868. “The situation” shows Stanton and Grant about to fire the canon of Congress at Johnson and Thomas. (Photo: Public domain)

Johnson was now furious and stopped looking for a replacement that would please Congress. He considered he had the right to dismiss Stanton.

Johnson named Brever Major General Lorenzo Thomas as the new Secretary of War. And sent Thomas himself to tell Stanton that he had been replaced. Stanton arrested Thomas, barricaded himself in his premises, and sent word to Congress that Johnson was firing him, again.

After a while Stanton realized that Thomas’ arrest would end up in court -what Johnson wanted- and the legality of the Tenure of Office Act would be questioned. So he freed Thomas.

President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment

Three days later (February 24, 1868) Johnson was impeached. He had violated the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing the Secretary without the Senate’s approval. The House of Representatives voted for his impeachment forhigh crimes and misdemeanors.” 126 voted in favor of the impeachment, 47 against it, and 17 abstained.

Johnson was charged with 11 articles, all of them related to the Tenure of Office Act. The articles were presented to the Senate.

Andrew Johnson’s trial

The next day (March 5, 1868) the Senate began the trial proceedings. Chief Justice Salmon Chase presided. Seven senators were named prosecutors, among them Johnson’s archenemies Thaddeus Stevens and John Bingham. And five senators formed Johnson’s defense team.

The trial in earnest began on March 30. Johnson was absent from it following the advice of his defense team. But everyone else was present. The impeachment had caused a frenzy in the media and among the people. The galleries of the senate were full every day.

Among the witnesses called was General William T. Sherman, whose testimony damaged the prosecution. Johnson had asked Sherman to replace Stanton as Secretary of War. The prosecution hoped it had been to interfere with Congress’ plans for Reconstruction. But Sherman said that Johnson wanted someone who could administer the department efficiently.

Is President Johnson guilty or not guilty?

The trial was over, and in May it was time to vote. 36 votes were needed to remove the president. Since 45 senators were Republicans he could very well be expelled.

But only 35 senators voted “guilty.” Johnson was acquitted.

He remained the president until his term expired the following March. Five years later, in 1874, he ran for senate and won.

Congress’ time to vote

The Republican senators that help acquit Johnson did not like him or his policies. But they believed he did not do anything illegal, he and Congress had simply disagreed on policy. They thought his removal would set a nasty constitutional precedent for the young country -the U.S. was less than 100 years old. If the president was removed, from then on every time that the House disagreed with him on policy they would remove him. That would weaken the presidential chair and upset the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches.

The next president, Ulysses Grant -who had briefly been Secretary of War under Johnson-, tried to repeal the Tenure of Office Act during his first month in office in 1869. He could not, but he amended it: the President could freely dismiss a member of his cabinet, and Congress could not reinstate him. They simply had the power to confirm or not the new appointee.

The Tenure of Office Act was completely repealed by Congress in 1887. And in 1926 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. For it gave the Legislative branch too much control over the President.

2. Richard Nixon’s aaalmost impeachment. 1974.

Even if he was not actually impeached, Nixon is the only U.S. president to loose his office as a result of an impeachment inquiry.

Richard Nixon’s Watergate, the gift that keeps on giving
Photographic portrait. A man dressed in a dark blue suit smiles. He stands next to the U.S. flag.
Richard Nixon was a congressman, senator, vice-president, and two times president of the United States. (Photo: White House/Public domain)

On June 17, 1972 five burglars were caught breaking in into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which were located in the Watergate building in Washington DC. The “burglars” were photographing campaign documents and wiretapping the Democrat’s phones.

After the arrest, the FBI found a trail of money that connected the burglars with the Committee for the Re-Election of the (Republican) President.

Shortly after the arrest, the burglars and two members of the Re-Election Committee, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, were indicted for the break-in. And by January 1973 they had all been sentenced to prison.

And for a while it appeared that was all there was to it. A small, not-very-clever break-in lead by corrupt members of the Re-election Committee. The situation was contained.

And Nixon easily won his re-election on November 7, 1972. By a true landslide.

A conspiracy theorist’s paradise: everyone is involved

Yet, a few newspapers kept investigating Watergate, especially The Washington Post. And they uncovered that it had not been the work of just a few bad apples. According to their finds, the General Attorney’s office, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House were all involved in Watergate’s cover-up.

While the White House said those were “wild accusations,” the articles captured the public’s interest. And soon the Senate wanted to know more too.

Seven months after the break-in, in February 1973, the Senate created a committee to investigate Watergate. They interviewed witnesses, including government officials, and by July it was clear that members of the White House were involved in the scandal.

Prosecutor Archibald Cox goes after Nixon

So the Senate asked the new Attorney General (the last one was replaced) to hire a prosecutor who could investigate Watergate independently. And the AG hired Harvard Law professor Archibald Cox for the tricky task.

The Senate hearings had uncovered that there was a recording mechanism in the Oval Office. So Cox subpoenaed the recordings that had registered the Watergate conversations. But the White House was not in a cooperating mood.

President and prosecutor took the matter to court, which asked both sides reached and agreement. If they did not, the court was probably going to ask the president to release the full tapes. The White House kept playing tricks on the prosecutor and stalling.

Finally, on Saturday 20, 1973, under mounting pressure from the presidency to stop asking for the tapes, Prosecutor Cox explained his conundrum in a televised press conference. He had a job to do and needed the tapes to close his investigation.

Like one of the senators had humorously noted during the Senate hearings: “the president says he is heard the tapes (..). And they sustain his position. But he says he is not going to let anybody else hear them, for fear they might draw different conclusions.”

Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre”

A few hours after the press conference, the president called Cox’s boss, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and asked him to fire Cox. Richardson was a long-time Nixon collaborator, but he had promised the Senate he would not interfere with Cox’s investigation of Watergate, so he refused to fire him, and resigned. Then Nixon called the second-in-command at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, and asked him to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused and resigned. Nixon, then, had to talk to the third-in-command, Solicitor General Robert Bork. Bork did fire Cox and abolished his office, as the president had requested. The events of that night are known in popular culture as “The Saturday Night Massacre.”

Front page of the New York Times newspaper. The headline reads: Nixon discharges Cox for defiance; Abolishes Watergate task force; Richardson and Ruckelshaus out.
The NYT’s front page on Sunday October 21, 1973. Cox’s firing led to the president’s impeachment inquiry. (Photo: NYT/Wikimedia)

With disbelief the public saw on television how the offices of the three men in the Department of Justice were sealed off by the FBI that same night, not allowing anyone to retrieve the documents of the Watergate investigation. This happened in Cold War times, and the actions of that Saturday seemed like a move totalitarian Russia would happily make.

The people took to the streets for two weeks demanding Nixon’s impeachment. And 10 days after Cox’s firing, the House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee began an impeachment inquiry.

To recap: now the Department of Justice, the Senate, and the House were all investigating Watergate.

The president’s men go down

And things kept getting worse for the president. In March 1974 seven of Nixon’s closest former aids were indicted for obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and perjury. And, unknown to the public, the grand jury also named Nixon as a co-conspirator in Watergate. But since he was the president, they did not indict him.

Those pesky tapes

The White House tapes kept looming. In April, 6 months after Cox’s dismissal, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed 42 of the tapes. Learning from the previous fiasco, Nixon sends edited transcripts of the tapes.

Black and white photo inside Congress. Two rows of congressmen sit listening.
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and her colleagues during the Watergate hearings. 1974. (Photo: House of Rep./Public domain)

The Committee keeps interviewing witnesses. And in July 1974 they are ready to draw up charges (articles of impeachment) against the president. They settle on 3: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. The next step is to present the charges to the entire House so they can vote on them.

While that is going on in Congress, the Supreme Court has not been slacking. They order Nixon to release the full tapes, not transcripts. So on July 30 Nixon finally complies and releases most of them.

It was not pretty. He had actively participated in the cover-up of Watergate. In just one of the conversations, on August 1, 1972 (two months after the break-in and a few months before his re-election) Nixon is heard talking to his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, about the men that were being tried for the burglary. The men were asking for money to keep quiet. Nixon says: “Well … they have to be paid. That’s all there is to that. They have to be paid.”

Richard Nixon’s smoking gun
President Nixon at his desk reading a document for the cameras.
President Nixon announces he will release the transcripts, which are seen in the background. April 1974. (Photo: NARA/Public domain)

On August 5 President Nixon released the last tape, the final nail on his coffin. The tape is from June 23, 1972, five days after the burglary. In it, Haldeman, the same guy from the other tape, talks to Nixon about the need to cover-up Watergate. Haldeman is heard saying: “the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters (CIA) call Pat Gray (FBI) and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this … this is business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.'” Nixon agrees and tells him to call the CIA and order them to block the FBI alleging matters of national security.

Up until the release of the tapes Nixon had vehemently denied being part of the cover-up.

Everyone leaves, even President Nixon

Even Nixon’s staunchest supporters now were publicly in favor of the impeachment. John Rhodes, the Republican minority leader of the House, said: “cover-up of criminal activity and misuse of federal agencies can neither be condoned nor tolerated.” 

Senators that until then had worried about the precedent they would establish if they removed a president, now worried about the precedent they would establish if they did not remove him. Following presidents would be able to act without regard of consequences. (In this short interview John Dean, who worked at the White House and was involved in Watergate, explains what type of mentality allowed for Watergate to happen. And for comparison’s sake here is another short interview with George Schulz, a Nixon collaborator who stayed clear of any wrongdoing.)

Senator Barry Goldwater, along with minority leaders John Rhodes and Hugh Scott, from Congress and the Senate, respectively, talked to Nixon on August 7. They told him that he was certainly going to be impeached and that the Senate would remove him. Scott, who days before thought 90 senators would be on Nixon’s side and that the president would not be removed, now thought the number of supporters had dropped to 15.

On August 8, Nixon informed the public that he was going to resign. And on August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States, signed his letter of resignation -the only U.S. president that has ever resigned.

The following month, in September, Gerald Ford, Nixon’s vice-president who was now president, granted Nixon a full pardon for all possible crimes committed during his presidency.

In total 69 people were indicted for Watergate. 48 were found guilty, among them many of Nixon’s top aides.

3. Bill Clinton’s impeachment. 1998.

This case is not as fascinating politically as the other two. It is about a man who cheated on his wife and tried to hide it from her.

A civil lawsuit against President Clinton
Photographic portrait of Bill Clinton. He stares directly at the camera and smiles.
William Clinton was president for two terms. (Photo: Bob McNeely/White House)

William Clinton was the brand new president of the United States when a lawsuit hit him in 1994. Paula Jones was accusing him of sexual harassment that had, allegedly, happened three years before, when Clinton was the governor of Arkansas.

The statue of limitations on the harassment was about to expire, so Jones decided to press charges. Clinton tried to postpone the trial until he was out of office. But the Supreme Court disagreed: the trial was to go forward.

Go forward it did for years until it was dismissed for lack of proof. That was in April of 1998. But Jones was not a quitter, she was going to appeal. So in November of the same year, Clinton settled out of court. And offered Jones $850,000 dollars. And while that was the end of the civil lawsuit, a can of worms had been opened.

Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky

Somehow, the trial had not damaged Clinton’s popularity, he still had an approval rate of 70%. He even won the elections a second time while in the middle of his trial, in 1997. The catch is that during the four-year lawsuit he had denied having a relationship with a White House intern called Monica Lewinsky.

Monica was 22 when she interned at the White House in June of 1995. Immediately, she got along with Clinton and they started a flirtatious relationship. A few months later, in November, the duo kissed in the president’s office. And then they began a sexual relationship that lasted for over a year.

Linda Tripp, the worst friend ever
Bill and Monica pose for a picture in the Oval Office. They face the camera and each has one arm around each others waist.
Bill and Monica were in a relationship from November 1995 to March 1997. (Photo: White House/Public domain)

Five months into the affair, in April 1996, Monica’s superiors were worried about her closeness to Clinton, so they transferred her to the Pentagon. There, Monica became friends with a co-worker, Linda Tripp, and told her of her ongoing affair with the president. Linda hated the Clintons and decided to tape her conversations with Monica, loosing all brownie points as a best friend in the process. Then, Linda told a Newsweek reporter of their affair, and later on, she told Paula Jones’ lawyers, for at the time the civil case was still open.

Jones’ team wanted to prove that Clinton’s alleged conduct was a pattern of behavior towards women. So Monica was placed in the claimant’s witness list. Clinton saw the list and panicked. He had had a relationship with Monica, and he was a married man. So he asked Monica to lie in court, to make up stories for the gifts that he had given her, and deny their relationship. In other words, to perjure herself.

While he was at it, he perjured himself too. When asked about their relationship during the lawsuit, he denied almost even knowing her. Monica who?

The salacious Starr Report
Black and white photo of Ken Starr talking. He is sitting in front of a microphone and wears a suit.
Independent counsel Ken Starr testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. (Photo: Rebecca Roth/Public domain)

But Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr had been investigating Clinton for impeachable offenses for years. He had looked into issues like the Whitewater controversy, Vince Foster’s death, Travelgate, Filegate; but Clinton had come out clean. And then, a gift: Linda Tripp gives him the tapes were Monica talks about her affair. Starr begins investigating the perjury. And he writes the Starr Report, sounds like the name of a tabloid, but it was a serious legal document that was presented to the House Judicial Committee. Its information had been gathered with the aid of FBI agents, Justice Department lawyers, hired independent researchers, and legal teams from Congress.

The report made clear that Clinton had indeed had an affair with Monica. And the torrid encounters were described in detail.

Starr’s thorough investigation had cost $70 million of public money, so the Judiciary Committee did not carry another unnecessary investigation. They moved directly to vote on which articles of impeachment to recommend. They choose 2: perjury and obstruction of justice.

There are no angels in Congress

The Committee presented the charges to the House of Representatives. Some representatives gave incensed speeches condemning marital infidelity. So publisher Larry Flynt offered one million dollars to anyone who had information on the infidelities of the congressmen. Turns out many of the incensed congressmen had committed adultery, including Henry Hyde, Bob Livingston, Bob Barr, Helen Chenoweth-Hage, Steven LaTourette, Newt Gingrich, and even Dan Burton who had said in the House “No one (…) regardless of what branch of government they serve, should be allowed to get away with these alleged sexual improprieties.” Married Burton had a natural child with his mistress.

Now that they were all outed, the House voted. And William Clinton, 43rd president of the United States, was impeached on October 8, 1998.

To remove or not to remove an elected president

The trial in the Senate began in January 1999 presided by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. 13 members of the House Judiciary Committee served as prosecutors, and 8 senators in the defense team.

Both sides were given time to build their cases. Then each team had 3 days to present their finds. Later on, it was decided to call witnesses, which the senators were not too comfortable with. After all, this was a sexual case and the testimonies were bound to get really personal. So the witnesses’ interviews were filmed elsewhere. And only the relevant excerpts were played for the senators.

In the closing arguments the prosecution emphasized that the president had perjured himself and that he had obstructed justice by asking Monica to lie. While, the defense admitted that Clinton had acted in a morally reprehensible way, but that his actions were not grounds to impeach a president of the United States. “Would it put at risk the liberties of the people to retain the President in office?” Charles Ruff asked.

The defense won. In February all the Democrats voted ‘not guilty’ -Clinton is a Democrat-. So did 10 Republican senators. The 67 votes required to remove him were not reached.

The aftermath of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial

Clinton stayed in office until the end of this term in 2001.

The civil court that he lied to fined him with $90,000. Since Clinton is a lawyer, his Arkansas law license was suspended for 5 years and he was fined $25,000. Because of his suspension, he was automatically disbarred from presenting cases in front of the Supreme Court. He could have appealed the disbarment, but he did not.

A precedent was set during the civil lawsuit when Clinton tried to postpone it. The Supreme Court ruled that a sitting president can be tried for civil cases.

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2019-10-21
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