Impeachment is a process in the House of Representatives that makes up the first major step required to remove a government official from office. Impeachment has been used infrequently in the United States—at either the federal or state level—and even less so in Britain, where the legal concept was first created and used. Three sitting U.S. presidents, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have been impeached by the House of Representatives.
Article 2 of the Constitution
After much debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the attendees—among them George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin—approved the concept behind the impeachment of government officials.
Adapted from British law, the impeachment process was included in Article 2, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, the document that serves as the foundation of the American system of government.
Some framers of the Constitution were opposed to the impeachment clause, because having the legislative branch sit in judgement over the executive might compromise the separation of powers they sought to establish between the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial.
However, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who would later serve in the House of Representatives and as vice president under James Madison, noted, “A good magistrate will not fear [impeachments]. A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”
What Crimes Are Impeachable?
Article 2, Section 4 states that 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.” This describes an abuse of power by a high-level public official.
How the Impeachment Process Works
Generally, the first step in the impeachment process in the House of Representatives is to hold a formal inquiry into whether or not there are grounds for impeachment. This can be carried out by a House committee or an independent counsel. The House of Representatives can also just hold a floor vote on articles of impeachment without any committee or panel vetting them.
Impeachment does not refer to the removal of an elected official from office, but rather it represents the first of a two-step process in potentially removing that official.
Based on the findings of a House committee or independent panel, the House Judiciary Committee can then draft and approve articles of impeachment. These articles may then go to the House floor for a vote. If the articles are passed by a simple majority, the matter moves to the Senate.
The Senate then acts as courtroom, jury and judge, except in presidential impeachment trials, during which the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court acts as judge.
A two-thirds majority of the Senate is required to convict, and the penalty is usually removal from office, and sometimes disqualification from holding any future offices.
READ MORE: What Happens After Impeachment?
Who Becomes President If the President Is Impeached?
If the U.S. president is impeached, the first in line to succeed him or her is the vice president, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the Senate, and then the secretary of state.
Once the vice president becomes president, the 25 Amendment to the Constitution permits the vice president to name their own successor: “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”
The current line of succession after President Donald Trump is Vice President Mike Pence, followed by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Charles Grassley and then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Presidents Who Faced Impeachment
Three U.S. presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives while others have faced formal impeachment inquiries. Each case saw different results.
John Tyler was was the first president to face impeachment charges. Nicknamed “His Accidency” for assuming the presidency after William Henry Harrison died after just 30 days in office, Tyler was wildly unpopular with his own Whig party. On January 10, 1843, Representative John M. Botts of Virginia proposed a resolution that would call for the formation of a committee to investigate charges of misconduct against Tyler for the purposes of possible impeachment.
Botts took issue with Tyler’s handling of the U.S. Treasury and what he described as the president’s “arbitrary, despotic, and corrupt abuse of veto power.” After a short debate, however, the House of Representatives voted down Botts’ resolution.
Andrew Johnson Impeachment
Andrew Johnson wasn’t so lucky. Johnson, who rose from vice president to president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was impeached in March, 1868, over his decision to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Congress argued that Stanton’s termination was an impeachable offense that violated the Tenure of Office Act, which had been voted into law the year before and prohibited the president from removing officials confirmed by the Senate without the legislative body’s approval.
On May 26, 1868, the impeachment trial in the Senate ended with Johnson’s opponents failing to get sufficient votes to remove him from office, and he finished the rest of his term.
Richard Nixon Resignation
All of these former commanders-in-chief had articles of impeachment filed against them in the House of Representatives. None of them were actually impeached, meaning those articles of impeachment failed to garner the necessary votes to move them to the Senate for a hearing.
President Richard M. Nixon faced impeachment over his involvement in the Watergate scandal and its fallout. In fact, the House of Representatives approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon, making him the second U.S. president (after Johnson) to face a potential hearing before the Senate.
However, Nixon resigned in 1974 before Congress could begin the proceedings.
Bill Clinton Impeachment
Although the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved two articles of impeachment against President Clinton, he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate the next year and finished his second four-year term in office in 2000.
Donald Trump Impeachment
On September 24, 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump regarding his alleged efforts to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate possible wrongdoings by Trump's political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The decision to authorize the impeachment inquiry came after a whistleblower complaint detailed a July phone conversation between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump allegedly tied Ukrainian military aid to personal political favors. The White House later released a reconstructed transcript of the phone call, which many Democrats argued demonstrated that Trump had violated the Constitution.
On December 18, 2019, Trump became the third U.S. president in history to be impeached as the House of Representatives voted nearly along party lines to impeach him over abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Only two Democrats opposed the article on abuse of power and a third Democrat opposed the second article on obstruction of justice. No Republican voted in favor of either article of impeachment. On February 5, 2020, the Senate voted largely along party lines to acquit Trump on both charges.
Impeachment is considered a power to be used only in extreme cases, and as such, it has been used relatively infrequently. Although Congress has impeached and removed eight federal officials—all federal judges—so far no sitting president has ever been found guilty during a Senate impeachment trial.
Impeachment at the State Level
In addition to federal impeachment, state legislatures are also granted the power to impeach elected officials in 49 of the 50 states, with Oregon being the lone exception.
At the state level, the process of impeachment is essentially the same as at the national level: typically, the lower state legislative chamber (the state assembly) is charged with levying and investigating formal accusations before ultimately voting on articles of impeachment should there be evidence of possible misconduct.
If the lower body approves any article(s) of impeachment, the upper chamber (the state senate) conducts a hearing or trial on the charges, during which both the legislators and the accused may call witnesses and present evidence.
Once the evidence and testimony has been presented, the upper chamber of the state legislature—much like the U.S. Senate at the federal level—must vote on whether the charged official is guilty or innocent.
Usually, a supermajority (two-thirds majority or greater) is required for conviction and removal from office.
And just like at the federal level, impeachment at the state level is extremely rare. For example, the state of Illinois has impeached only two officials in its entire history—a judge in 1832-33 and a governor (Rod Blagojevich) in 2008-09.
Impeachment in Britain
Ironically, given its origins in British law, the process of impeachment has been used even less frequently in the United Kingdom.
Originally, impeachment was developed as a means by which the British Parliament could prosecute and try holders of public office for high treason or other crimes. However, it was created prior to the evolution of political parties in Britain and the establishment of collective and individual ministerial responsibility within the government.
When the process was used in Britain, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, Parliament and the courts had very limited oversight of government power. Although efforts to remove the power to impeach from Parliament via legislation have failed to pass, the process is considered obsolete in the U.K. and hasn’t been used since 1806.
Impeachment. U.S. House of Representatives.
Impeachment. U.S. Senate.
The Senate Acquits President Clinton. Washington Post.
Separation of Powers—Impeachment. National Conference of State Legislatures.
Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been removed from office. Chicago Tribune.
Impeachment. Parliament (U.K.).