Power is a complex thing. If wielded correctly, it can help us organize ourselves and achieve greatness. We need people who can take action and tell others what to do in order to get a job done. But in the wrong hands, the effects of power can be devastating. War, oppression, inequality, despotism…not good. Still, how can you avoid that? Even if you get to choose your leader, how do you know before he/she enters office that he won’t let all that power go to his/her head?
Answer: You don’t. The founding fathers created a system that they believed would lead to the most competent candidates winning seats in the government, but people don’t always end up being as virtuous as the voters might hope. Or, the person is clearly not virtuous, but they somehow got elected anyway and now we’re searching the Constitution for proof that you can kick someone out of office for egregious spelling errors.
This is why we have the process of Impeachment–the removal of the civil officer–in the United States Government. The whole concept behind our country as a Democratic Republic, in which the people choose the government, is that the government is supposed to serve and protect the people. When the government is not doing that, the people get to get rid of them. (Impeachment in the US refers to all higher-up government officers, not just the executive branch. But for explanatory purposes I will be referring presidential impeachment only.)
Yet we have never actually forced a president from office. Why is that? I mean, let’s face it, we’ve had some doozies. To be honest, impeachment is not as straightforward as it might seem when outlined in the Constitution. Let’s talk about how it all goes down, and what we would do to actually give a prez the boot.
Why Do We Have Impeachment?
This may seem like a dumb question, but note that most countries have not had effective ways to peacefully remove a government officer from his role. The most popular way historically to replace leaders was messy, to say the least. It was actually Benjamin Franklin who suggested that maybe it was time to come up with a way that didn’t include so much, I don’t know…murder?
The first reigning document of the US, the Articles of the Confederation, didn’t even include an executive role. That’s because the founding fathers were scared sh*tless at the prospect of a tyrannical monarchy and wanted to do everything possible to prevent the rise of an unofficial king.
The problem was that the Articles gave the government so little control that it was impossible to organize the growing country. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, American leaders agreed to replace the Articles with the Constitution, which established a single executive leader in addition to a bicameral legislature and judiciary.
But they weren’t going to just give all that unbridled power of enforcing the law to one person, obviously. Suspicion and anxiety over tyranny is literally written into our country’s past. They made sure certain rights would be retained by each branch of the government in order to check the others and balance the distribution of power. These are commonly known as–brace yourself–Checks and Balances. One of the biggest checks on the executive (well, in theory) is Congress’s ability to remove him from office.
How Would it Work?
The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.
U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 4
The Constitution dictates that the president can only be impeached for committing a crime. It doesn’t allow for their removal if people just don’t like them, or because Congress is feeling particularly bitchy that day, or because he says “expresso” instead of “espresso.” Of course, the reason for pursuing the president is usually politically motivated, but there still must be a criminal charge.
Assuming there are legitimate grounds to accuse the officer of criminal activity, the first step is to get the motion approved by the House of Representatives. Any representative can move to impeach– the Constitution just dictates that any such movement must originate from within the House:
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5
[Note that here, “Power of Impeachment” means the power to indict. It does not mean the complete Impeachment process of conviction and removal. Also, “chuse”? Did no one look this thing over before pressing “send” to the entire nation? I know there was no spellcheck in 1789, but JESUS.]
Once a member/members of the House finishes the Impeachment resolution, or list of charges, it goes through pretty much the same process as any other bill. It’s referred to a committee, usually the House Committee of the Judiciary, first. If it gets through committee, it will face a full vote on the House floor. It’s during this time that the House managers (the equivalent of the prosecution) are chosen. This can be done by either directly mentioning names in the resolution or giving the Speaker of the House the privilege of choosing. Recently, though, the authors of the resolution have chosen the managers.
If the House passes the Articles of Impeachment, that means that they have agreed to indict the president for his alleged crimes. The Articles are then sent to the Senate, and the rest of the Impeachment process plays out as a trial.
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried the Chief Justice shall preside; And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Judgement in Cases of Impreachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgement and Punishment, according to Law.
Article 1, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7
The first clause here states that Senate is responsible for holding the president’s hearing, and that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will serve as the judge. Two thirds of the Senate must vote to convict the president in order to remove him. If the House managers are the prosecution, then the Senate can be considered the jury. More specifically, a jury that cannot quietly throw away their summons letters.
The second clause says that if the Senate believes that the president is guilty of the crimes which he’s been accused, they can decide to remove him from office–but that’s it. They don’t have the right in this case to send him to jail or present him with any other legal consequences. He can totally still be convicted, but that’s for another trial. An Impeachment trial is only to determine whether or not a president will be forced to step down.
Let’s say that you’re president and you’ve been successfully impeached. First off, I’m sorry, that sucks, but maybe don’t commit crimes? Anyway, you’re now barred from holding office again, and no one can pardon your impeachment. However, in the criminal trial that will undoubtedly ensue, your successor might pardon you of your actual crime so you don’t go to jail. Yay for you! …Kind of.
So…Why Has This Never Happened?
Technically we’ve impeached (meaning indicted) two presidents, but we’ve never actually removed any. We’ve had a lot of unpopular presidents, and even more who have probably committed crimes worthy of being kicked out of office. It seems kind of strange.
Wait, no it doesn’t. Firstly, basically everyone knows that the government is one humongous case of gridlock. It moves with the vigor roughly equivalent to that of a three-toed sloth.
The founding fathers purposely made it difficult for most anything to get through congress; their fear of centralized power included the federal legislature as well. They wanted it to be difficult to pass laws, because otherwise congress would be a legislation machine, cranking out laws like no one’s business with pretty much zero oversight. A simple majority can be difficult enough in the House, and a two-thirds majority in the Senate is near impossible on a decision so controversial.
Secondly, they didn’t want it to be TOO easy to remove the executive leader, because he was democratically elected. “By the people,” and so on.
Finally, an impeachment trial is different than a normal criminal trial because they jury isn’t impartial. They just can’t be. Our political system is bipartisan, meaning it comprises two main political parties which generally oppose each other. The senators have inherent motive in what they decide to do: the result of the trial will affect them and the party to which they’re loyal.
The guidelines of Impeachment are simple. The real-life applications of them are not. It takes a lot of agreement and coordination to get anything through the federal legislature, especially something as weighty as a removing a national leader. This is why Impeachment may seem like Congress’s trump card, but actually isn’t as historically effective in dampening presidential power as other checks on the executive.
Impeachments Throughout History
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve only ever impeached two presidents, and both were acquitted. Richard Nixon resigned as to avoid it. Not that it made too much of a difference in his legacy, because if you have to say that you’re not a crook, well…
Andrew Johnson, 1868
Andrew Johnson, Vice President to Abraham Lincoln, was the first president that pissed Congress off enough to spark discussion of Impeachment. To be fair, though, Reconstruction (the period following the end of the Civil War up until 1877) was a particularly prickly era. It would have been a difficult term for any president.
Before the end of the war, Lincoln created the “Ten Percent Rule“: when ten percent of the population in a state that had seceded voted to re-enter the Union and accept its government, that state would be allowed to once again send representatives to Congress. It was a pretty lenient plan, because Lincoln wanted to give former Confederates as much incentive to return as possible. He was really more interested in getting the country back together than he was punishing Southerners for breaking off in the first place. He also suggested offering clemency to anyone who had joined Confederacy, barring any high-up officials.
When Lincoln died, Johnson (a Southerner) was determined to carry through his predecessor’s plans for reunification. Other Northerners were not so into that. The most unforgiving were known as Radical Republicans, who believed that Southerners needed to do more to prove their loyalty to the Union. They wanted to flood the South with troops and deny them representation as punishment for seceding.
Since they refused to let any Southern representatives back into congress, Republicans WERE Congress. Thus, Johnson was quite unpopular. No one was very sympathetic towards his sympathy for the South. In 1867, he violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing a member of his cabinet. The law, passed earlier that year, stated that the president couldn’t dismiss an appointed official. He had actually vetoed it, but congress overrode the veto (the act was ruled unconstitutional 60 years later by the Supreme Court).
After a lengthy trial, the Senate ruled to let Johnson stay in office, missing the two-thirds majority by ONE vote. Phew. A year later, Johnson lost to Ulysses S. Grant in the general election. Aw.
Bill Clinton, 1999
Unlike the Johnson’s, The Clinton Trial was dramatic, colorful, and scandalous; and if you were 13 or under, probably kind of vague because no one would let you listen to any of the proceedings or the news surrounding it. Or, it was a VERY confusing sex ed lesson.
In 1994, a former Arkansas government worker named Paula Jones sued Clinton for sexual harassment. She claimed that he had exposed himself to her in a hotel room and asked her to be his mistress three years prior. In December of 1997, Jones’s lawyers subpoenaed Monica Lewinsky as a witness, suspecting that she might be one of a few women who had experienced something similar. Lewinsky, a White House intern, denied that she had any intimate relations with the president.
Except, oh wait, she had–as came to light when her coworker Linda Tripp shared recorded tapes of their conversations with independent white house counsel Kenneth Star. In fact, she had a relationship with Clinton from 1995 to 1997. What was even worse for Clinton, though, is that when he was deposed for the Jones trial he claimed that he had never done anything sexual with Lewinsky. He also said this at the end of his well-known televised speech. When Starr found the infamous Blue Dress with Clinton’s, well, DNA on it, Clinton was screwed (and not in a good way). In August 1998, he admitted to a grand jury that he and Lewinsky had had an “inappropriate physical relationship.”
Starr presented the House with evidence for 11 different counts on which he could be impeached. In December 1998, the House agreed on two of the charges–perjury and obstruction of justice–and impeached Clinton. It’s important to note that Clinton was not brought to trial because of his sexual relationship with Lewinsky, but because he had lied about it under oath.
The trial began in 1999, and lasted a little more than a month. Clinton’s lawyers tried to convince the jury that he had not committed perjury because he hadn’t considered receiving oral sex (the only kind he had with Lewinsky) to be “sexual relations” as defined in the Jones trial. To be fair, of all the body parts they mentioned, the word “mouth” wasn’t included. But still, gross.
Democrats had a majority in the Senate, so it wasn’t too surprising that Clinton was acquitted of both counts. Clinton’s opposition couldn’t even round up a simple majority on either charge. He was, however, held in contempt of the court a few months later by the Arkansas federal judge of the original Jones trial. He agreed to a 5-year suspension of his license to practice law.
What That Means for Impeachment Today
Rep. Brad Sherman presented the House with articles of impeachment on grounds of Obstruction of Justice earlier this year, but even he has said that it’s just a way to put pressure on the Trump administration and that he doesn’t expect it to result in Impeachment. He’s right; it’s really unlikely that our current president,
Voldemort Trump, will be removed from his office.
Why? Well, firstly, both of the houses in Congress are GOP controlled. Even if the articles magically passed through the House (it won’t), it would need to get that 2/3 majority in the Senate (again, it won’t). I mean, Andrew Johnson had a Congress that was literally only his enemies, and even THEN they weren’t able to kick him out.
Secondly, the crime of which he’s being accused is Obstruction of Justice, based on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony that Trump told him not to look into that whole Michael Flynn-Russia thing. As Ryan Bort notes in his piece in Newsweek, “Considering the obstruction of justice charge comes down to Trump’s word versus Comey’s—and also to the definition of obstruction of justice—it’s just not going to happen.”
Well, there’s always 2020…?