The history of impeachment is a fascinating one, to say the least. The powers of impeachment and the process are less well known however. Many may recall the only two presidents to ever be impeached, but too many would name Richard Nixon as one of them.
The only presidents to ever be impeached we Andrew Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton. Both were impeached in the House of Representative, but neither was convicted in the Senate, as require for removal from office.
Johnson escaped impeachment conviction in the Senate by only one vote, interestingly. The lone vote saving from removal did so because he was told that Johnson would behave for the remainder of his term, which he did.
The charges required for impeachment are only described as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” There are no descriptions of what this means, however, so the “crime” of impeachable offences is undefined. Impeachment, therefore can be anything. All that impeachment requires is the political will to impeach.
Andrew Johnson was impeached for his opposition to Reconstruction, and for being an avowed racist. He prevented former slaves from receiving any economic support after the Civil War, and allowed most of the former Confederates to return to their lives unpunished for their crimes against the nation.
William Jefferson Clinton was impeached for lying to federal investigators about a consensual sexual affair with a White House staffer. His offense was, in reality, that he had adopted the Republican legislative agenda of tax cuts, welfare reform and criminal enforcement. Stealing the GOP thunder was inexcusable, and resulted in the creation of a scandal that consumed much of Clinton’s second term.
In the Age of Trump, is would be hard to imagine that Republicans would howl impeachment at sexual indelicacies, because Trump is anything but delicate when it comes to sex crimes. He boasts of them, in fact.
The impeachment talk surrounding Trump is real, however, and has the capacity to develop into the first ever impeahment and conviction for a sitting president.
The following is a brief explanation of impeachment from Michael J. Gerhardt:
What Everyone Needs to Know Q&A: Recently, lawmakers attempted to file articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the Justice Department official who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Though the effort was abandoned, we want to know:
How does an impeachment begin?
Generally, impeachments can begin in at least two ways.
- The first is that someone or some group outside the House of Representatives asks the House or some members in it, or makes a referral to the House, to consider impeachment. Almost anyone can do this, including presidents, prosecutors, citizens, and judicial councils…
- The second way in which impeachments can begin is when some member(s) of the House, on their own initiative, recommend that the House considers initiating an impeachment inquiry…
Regardless of who is pressing the House to consider an impeachment, the Constitution provides that the House has “the sole power of impeachment.” Congress takes this language literally, as it should. It means that, although the House can get recommendations on whether to impeach someone or not, it is the House and the House alone that must actually conduct and take responsibility for impeachment.
Though there is nothing in the Constitution barring people or authorities outside of the House from recommending that the House considers impeachment, none of these recommendations is binding on the House; that is, none of these outside authorities has the power to require or force the House to initiate impeachment hearings. Having the “sole power of impeachment” means the House remains free to disregard any recommendations that it considers an impeachment if it so chooses.
[Page 73-74, Impeachment: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Michael J. Gerhardt]