Impeaching a president has little historical precedent
With Democrats debating whether to impeach President Trump, it’s worth remembering that no president has ever been removed via the impeachment process. Not so for the governors of Oklahoma.
After Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, the Legislature went on an impeachment tear, bringing charges against four governors and booting two from office. Still, voters didn’t hold it against them: One of the ousted governors later served in the state Senate, and the other was elected to the state’s Corporation Commission.
Outside the Sooner State, however, impeachment has been used sparingly. Only eight governors have been forced to leave office after being impeached, and only two presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton have undergone impeachment, with neither being removed.
Matthew Spalding, a constitutional studies professor at Hillsdale College’s extension center in Washington, D.C., said that’s by design. The Founding Fathers wanted a fail-safe against tyranny and despotism, but they also wanted to make the process extremely difficult.
“It was intended to be a very significant action, a co-equal branch of government removing from office someone in another branch,” said Mr. Spalding, associate vice president and dean of educational programs for the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. “This is, to some extent, a nuclear option in the separation of powers. This was not meant to be an everyday occurrence.”
For all the talk of impeaching Mr. Trump, which began even before he assumed office in January 2017, Democrats would face an arduous climb if they decide to go that route.
The process begins after a complaint or petition has been filed alleging that the president has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which need not be an actual crime.
Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said the founders discussed making the standard for impeachment “maladministration” before rejecting that term in favor of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“What they really were concerned about was a president who was doing something that would damage the country in some way, which is why they came up with this term, ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ which all of them completely understood,” Mr. Engel, co-author of “Impeachment: An American History,” said at a recent forum. “We don’t, but they did.
When asked in 1970 to define “impeachable offense,” then-Rep. Gerald R. Ford famously replied, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
The House Judiciary Committee would refer the matter to its Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee for investigation. If the complaint were found to have merit, the subcommittee would prepare articles of impeachment, which would go to the full committee for a vote.
If passed, the full House would vote on the articles of impeachment, and if approved, they would be sent to the Senate, which “then becomes a courtroom for a full-scale trial, with the senators serving as the jury,” said David Barton in a post for the National Center for Constitutional Studies.
A two-thirds majority Senate vote is required to convict the president, who then would be removed from office.
In the cases of Johnson and Mr. Clinton, the Senate vote fell short, and both presidents resumed their “full practice, responsibilities, and privileges” until the end of their terms.
Confusion about impeachment is common. For example, impeaching a president doesn’t remove him from office the Senate must vote to do so following a trial. Another misconception is that President Richard M. Nixon was impeached. He resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee had approved articles of impeachment.
While impeachment is most often associated with presidents, federal and state officials in the executive and judicial branches are also subject to the process. Fifteen federal judges have been impeached, with eight convicted by the Senate, four acquitted and three resigning before the outcome.
Only one Supreme Court justice has been impeached: Justice Samuel Chase, who was accused of “arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials” and was acquitted in 1805, according to Ballotpedia.
“That was really the first big case,” said Hillsdale College’s Mr. Spalding. “That was after the election of 1800, and the Jeffersonians didn’t like the fact that all these Federalists were taking over the Supreme Court. They went after him in broad terms, and it was a mostly political question.”
The impeachment of Justice Chase “helped define what an impeachment is. It established the fact that you really can’t impeach someone because you don’t like their politics,” Mr. Spalding added. “All the cases, in their way, underscore the fact that this is not to be done for light or frivolous reasons.”
Ford, who became president after Nixon’s resignation, tried in 1970 to have Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas impeached and even testified before the House Judiciary Committee, but no vote was taken.
While impeachment is rare, calls for impeachment are on the upswing. The House referred an impeachment resolution to the Judiciary Committee against President George W. Bush over his conduct of the Iraq War in 2008, but no further action was taken.
Efforts by a few House Republicans to impeach President Barack Obama also went nowhere. Still, the frequency of such demands may have diluted their impact.
Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, noted that more than 100 years separated the Johnson and Nixon impeachment proceedings.
Today, however, the frequency of impeachment calls “may have become white noise” to the voters, she added.
“Now it’s becoming part and parcel sadly of our polarization, of our polarized polity,” Ms. Perry said. “And that may have an impact on how people see it, that they come to see it as a purely partisan element.”