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 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 president 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
Johnson was president during rough times. The country was just coming out of the Civil War, and it was in upheaval.
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, who called themselves Radical Republicans, did not mind aggravating what they considered conquered territories. They wanted to militarize the South and control their government and laws.
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. In 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.
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, and clothes; and helped the freed people get jobs.
The House, too, tried to veto the president’s moves. But during the first years, they were not 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. He would 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 the 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. And his secretary 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. It 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
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 he sent Thomas himself to tell Stanton that he had been replaced. Stanton arrested Thomas. He barricaded himself in his premises and sent word to Congress that Johnson was firing him, again.
After a while, Stanton realized he had been played. 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.
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 the president 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.
Congress completely repealed the Tenure of Office in 1887. And in 1926, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional as it gave the Legislative branch too much control over the president.
2. Richard Nixon’s aaalmost impeachment. 1974.
Nixon is the only U.S. president to lose his office as a result of an impeachment inquiry.
Richard Nixon’s Watergate, the gift that keeps on giving
On June 17, 1972, five burglars were caught breaking in into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The headquarters 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. It 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.
For a while, it appeared that was all there was to it. It had been a small, not-very-clever break-in lead by corrupt members of the Re-election Committee. The situation was contained.
Nixon 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.
The White House said those were “wild accusations.” But 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 had been replaced) to hire a prosecutor who could investigate Watergate independently. The AG hired Harvard Law professor Archibald Cox for the tricky task.
The Senate hearings had uncovered the Oval Office had a recording mechanism. 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. But the court asked both sides to reach an agreement. If they could 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 said 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 has 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. The president asked him to fire Cox. Richardson was a long-time Nixon collaborator. But the attorney 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. The president 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.”
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. The FBI did not even allow anyone to retrieve the documents of the Watergate investigation.
This happened during the Cold War, and the actions of that Saturday seemed like a move totalitarian Russia would happily make, not the democratic United States.
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, 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.
The Committee kept interviewing witnesses. And in July 1974, they were 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 was to present the charges to the entire House so they could vote whether to dismiss the impeachment or not.
While that was going on in Congress, the Supreme Court had not been slacking. They ordered Nixon to release the full tapes, not transcripts.
So on July 30, Nixon finally complied and released most of them.
It was not pretty. The president 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. They talk 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
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 to 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. He is 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 politically fascinating 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
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. The harassment had, allegedly, happened three years before, when Clinton was the governor of Arkansas.
The statute 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 he 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 lied (perjured himself). The president 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
Five months into the affair, Monica’s superiors were worried about her closeness to Clinton. So in April 1996, they transferred her to the Pentagon.
There, Monica became friends with a co-worker, Linda Tripp. And Monica told Linda of her ongoing affair with the president.
Linda hated the Clintons and decided to tape her conversations with Monica, losing 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 on 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 to 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
But Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr had been investigating Clinton for impeachable offenses for years.
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. It sounds like the name of a tabloid and did have juicy information, yet, 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 themselves. The list 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. It was presided by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. 13 members of the House Judiciary Committee served as prosecutors, and 8 senators were 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, furthermore, he had obstructed justice by asking Monica to lie.
Meanwhile, the defense admitted that Clinton had acted in a morally reprehensible way. Yet, 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-. 10 Republican senators also acquitted him. So 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 during the Jones’ case 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.