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What does it take to impeach the President of the United States?

Only two presidents have been impeached in American history and a third was nearly impeached.

ATLANTA — The United States Constitution does not offer many details when it comes to the impeachment of the President.

Section Four of Article II of the United States Constitution very simple reads, "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."

But what does that mean?

By its very definition, the word impeachment is defined as charging a public official before a "competent tribunal" with misconduct -- most specifically, a crime or misdemeanor, while in office.

When it comes to the President of the United States, the House of Representatives is charged with impeaching, or charging, the president. Following an impeachment, the Senate would, in turn, have the power to potentially remove a sitting president from office.

No public official in American history has been impeached for bribery or treason.

The term "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is most commonly used when discussing impeachment. The definition of high crimes and misdemeanors is much more nebulous and left to the lawmakers in the House of Representatives -- which is the legislative body charged with the power to impeach a sitting president.

In the past, Congress has identified three types of conduct that have been considered to be "impeachable offenses":

  • Improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of office
  • Behavior incompatible with the function and purpose of the office
  • Misusing the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain

So how would all of this work? 

The Impeachment Process

First, the House Judiciary Committee would have to hold an investigative inquiry. Following that inquiry, they would send Articles of Impeachment -- or more informally, individual charges -- to the full House of Representatives for a floor vote.

If a simple majority of the House -- 50 percent plus one vote -- ratifies, or passes, the Articles of Impeachment, then the president is considered to have been impeached.

The next step in the process moves from the House to the Senate for a formal trial. 

At that point, the US Senate chamber becomes a defacto courtroom. The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- John Roberts -- would become the presiding judge.

Members of the House become "managers," or essentially prosecuting attorneys, for the purposes of the trial.

The president may select a defense attorney and additional counselors to help defend him at trial.

The Senate trial proceeds much as a courtroom trial would, with both sides presenting opening statements followed by testimony. Witnesses may be called to testify on behalf of both sides. This portion of the trial is concluded by closing arguments by both the prosecution and the defense.

The Senate as a body is then tasked with deliberating before voting "guilty" or "not guilty" on each count against the president. A two-thirds majority on any single count would result in the president's immediate removal from office.

In the past, two presidents -- Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton -- have been impeached by the House. Following their impeachment, both Johnson and Clinton avoided removal from office during their respective Senate trials.

A third president, Richard Nixon, narrowly missed being impeached, and this only because he resigned from office days prior to a House impeachment vote taking place.

The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson

The impeachment of Johnson, the nation's 17th president, got underway when the House charged him with high crimes and misdemeanors as noted in 11 articles of impeachment presented on the House floor in February 1868.

Johnson was accused of violating the 1867 Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and attempting to replace him with Gen. Lorenzo Thomas. The 1867 Tenure of Office Act had been passed by Congress in March 1867 over Johnson's veto.

The House voted to impeach Johnson on March 3, 1868, adopting the articles of impeachment as presented and forwarding them on to the Senate.

On March 6, 1868, the Senate convened a formal impeachment trial with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding over the body.

After a contentious trial, on May 16, the Senate failed to convict Johnson on one of the 11 articles, falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority by one vote. A ten-day recess was called before votes were taken on additional articles. On May 26, after two more votes failed, the trial was adjourned.

The Resignation of President Richard Nixon

In February 1974, a formal impeachment process was initiated against the nation's 37th president, Richard Nixon, when the House Judiciary was granted authority to investigate whether grounds existed to impeach him of high crimes and misdemeanors.

The charges against Nixon were primarily related to the Watergate scandal and were undertaken a year after the US Senate established a select committee to investigate the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the Nixon Administration's attempted cover-up of its involvement.

In July 1974, three articles of impeachment were approved against Nixon -- one each for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Two other articles were debated, but not approved.

Before the full House could vote on the resolutions, Nixon made a transcript of a conversation from an audiotape on August 5, 1974. This transcript made clear his direct involvement in the cover-up and led to his resignation from office on August 9, 1974.

It is widely believed that had he not resigned, the House would have impeached Nixon within days, followed by his removal from office by the Senate.

The Impeachment of President Bill Clinton

On October 8, 1998, the US House voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Clinton, the nation's 42nd president.

The high crimes and misdemeanors noted in two articles of impeachment against Clinton were specifically lying under oath and obstruction of justice related to the sexual harassment lawsuit brought forth by Paula Jones.

In 1994, Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, in which she said he had harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas. Clinton tried to push off a trial until he was out of office, but in May 1997, the Supreme Court ordered the case to move forward.

Among the witnesses Jones' attorneys included was Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with the president.

Clinton gave a sworn deposition in January 1998 denying having had sexual relations with Lewinsky. Less than two weeks later, after news of the scandal broke publicly, Clinton addressed the allegations in a televised address to the nation, where he maintained his innocence.

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton said.

However, in taped grand jury testimony in August 1998, Clinton admitted that he'd had an "improper physical relationship" with Lewinsky. In a televised speech to the nation, the president admitted that his relationship with the former intern was "not appropriate."

Following the November 1998 election, the Democratic party was in the minority in both the US House and the US Senate. Following Clinton's admissions, enough members of the House determined that Clinton's false testimony and perjury relating to the Jones lawsuit were impeachable offenses.  

Clinton was impeached on December 19, 1998 on the grounds of perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. Two other articles failed: a second count of perjury and abuse of power.

A Senate trial against Clinton convened on January 7, 1999, with US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding. The trial took place over much of the month of January and the first week of February.

After closing arguments, on February 9, after the Senate voted against public deliberation, the body began to deliberate Clinton's fate behind closed doors. 

On February 12, the Senate emerged to vote, ultimately voting against removing Clinton from office.


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