Under the Constitution of the United States, whoever best convinces the public to elect him to an office, owns it for the entire term of the office. The document makes an exception for judges and the President, whom it is hard for even scandal to dislodge. When the nation wants to discharge these officials due to illness--because the public is sick of them--it turns to the institution of impeachment.
Impeachment does not itself remove an official from office. Impeachment is just the official accusation, which sets up a trial. So--
- The House of Representatives votes to impeach an official if Members find it would serve their personal political interest to chuck him out of office. In contrast,
- The Senate conducts the trial, and votes to convict if Members find it would serve their personal political interest to chuck him out of office.
The Constitution calls for impeachment in cases of "high crimes and misdemeanors." For the definition of this, see just above. Unspoken prerequisites for impeachment are that Congress be controlled by the party of which the President is not a member, and that the President's poll numbers are both low and dropping like a rock.
Members of the President's party argue that the opposition intends to "overturn the results of the last election" and "substitute its will for the will of the people." This is crap. The people elected the President and a Vice President of the same party at the same time. So the only result is that the ruling party's designated backup candidate would take over. Of course, the Vice President is always an illiterate, bumbling, wimpy fool nominated for the express purpose of inducing loathing at the thought of anything untoward happening to the President--including removal for cause.
The President's allies also argue that the drive to impeach is an attack on the office, rather than on his misconduct. They argue that using the procedure called for in the Constitution is a threat to Constitutional government. Uh huh.
However, when government is occupied by adults, sometimes the mere threat of impeachment induces action. In 1974, when it became clear that President Richard Nixon had spied on adversaries and the opposition party, and had directed a cover-up, friendly Congressmen in gray suits successfully appealed to him to resign. Gerald Ford took over and jubilantly told the nation that the Constitution had won out. In fact, he meant that the Constitution had been snuck around. (Government has not been occupied by adults since then.)
Impeachment in United States History
The first President to be impeached was Andrew Johnson. He became President on the strength of a single bullet, delivered by John Wilkes Booth, at the end of the Civil War when tempers were still quite hot. The charges were essentially that he didn't adequately suck up to Congress. No one remembers him.
Bill Clinton was the more notorious recipient of a writ of impeachment. He is called the "first elected President to be impeached," because Americans love firsts and records, and because Republicans like to pretend that his sliminess was unprecedented. More about this below.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton
In 1994, two years into the term of President Clinton, the Congress switched to the opposition Republican Party, which naturally found it expedient to investigate whether the President had committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" that might make him (snicker!) ineligible for office.
Congress availed itself of the Independent Counsel Act (which has since been dug a deep grave). This Act, derived from the English Star Chamber, lets Congress name an investigator and give him an unlimited budget with which to incessantly pursue a specific individual to see what dirt can be dug up on him.
Unfortunately, the original independent counsel, Robert Fiske, found no impeachable acts; only minor crimes that backslapping politicians always let one another get away with. The new Congress replaced him with Kenneth Starr, who was, as it's often put in Help Wanted advertising, a self-starting individual with fire in his eyes.
Sure enough, through an arcane combination of a talk-show hostess, a harassment lawsuit, and a legal fishing expedition allowed by a women's-rights law Clinton himself signed, Starr parlayed an investigation of insufficiently documented real estate payments and improper firings into a lurid story of oral sex in the White House. Which is nothing illegal, though Congressmen of the other party are routinely shamed out of office at the mere charge of pressuring powerless interns for kisses on the less remarkable end.
Fatefully, Clinton followed the most recent modern precedent--that set by Richard Nixon--and defended himself by giving the nation a finger-wagging scolding, lying under oath, and getting subordinates to destroy evidence. In 1998, Starr delivered his report to the House Judiciary Committee. The motorcade carrying cardboard boxes of documents to Congress got more TV coverage than any event until the fateful trip of O.J. Simpson's white van. Even more notably, the Starr report was available in paperback, nationwide within three days, wherever fine pornography is sold.
The Republicans insisted that the case was not about sex. This is crap. Windy explanations of evasive testimony and five-paragraph definitions of sex--all of which depend on what the meaning of the word is, is--don't sell. Cigar-in-vagina: That, we understand.
The trial moved to the Senate, and as set out in the Constitution, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided. As not set out anywhere, he wore a black robe with four golden stripes on each arm, like Captain Kirk. Oddly, the Republican Senate declined to hear witnesses, arranged a whirlwind schedule, and came well short of the two-thirds majority that would have removed Clinton from office. But recall that the real question for Senators is which outcome best butters their own political toast. The GOP had a choice between a now-discredited liar, or seating a President Gore, a new face whose biggest lies were still ahead of him. Clinton was cleared for two more years of governance guaranteed to be totally ineffective--except for the occasional granting of pardons to campaign donors.
The impeachment of George W. Bush
This was proposed every month during Bush's presidency, because Washington runs on payback. Astute readers know why it never happened:
- In Bush's first six years, he controlled Congress. Republicans eat their own babies, but only during election campaigns.
- In Bush's last two years, the Democrats ran Congress. They vilified Vice President Dick Cheney for single-handedly making the Hurricane Katrina flood waters take a sharp right turn toward the black neighborhoods of New Orleans. However, they would not cast a vote that instantly doubled the intelligence and quadrupled the persuasiveness of the White House. That is, the Vice President once again performed his only essential function.
The impeachment of Barack Obama
Barack Obama's poll numbers fell like a rock during his first two years, but his party ran Congress. Some Republicans charged that Obama was foreign-born and technically unable to be President. They were bound and gagged by their leadership, in favor of smiling and practicing their shuck-and-jive.
Republicans retook the House in January 2011, having campaigned to return the nation to fiscal balance and the military to actual national defense, as they utterly failed to do when they last called the shots. Surprising no one, they again made no progress toward either goal, as they spent all their time considering Obama's "high crimes and misdemeanors."
The impeachment of Donald Trump
On the heels of the surprise election of President Donald Trump, it remained true that "revenge is a meal best served by pompous men in gray suits," though it now included frumpy women in pussy hats. The drive to remove Trump began the moment the ink was dry on the next day's blogs. It involved proposals that:
- Members of the Electoral College chosen by the Trump campaign experience a sudden attack of conscience and vote for the Dalai Lama or something;
- Cabinet secretaries Trump appointed gather and vote him unfit to serve under the 25th Amendment;
- Employees of White House Facilities Maintenance use bricks and mortar to ensure that Trump cannot get into the Oval Office.
When Trump's lieutenants inexplicably declined to remove Trump, the conversation naturally turned to impeachment, requiring another heroic search for High Crimes and Misdemeanors. On the heels of a scripted meeting with top FBI lawmen, which was immediately leaked to east-coast newspapers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to appoint a Special Prosecutor, and immediately issue a "recusal" declaring himself too biased in favor of Trump to supervise what the Prosecutor did.
Robert Mueller rose to the occasion and assembled a group of expert lawyers, whose expertise was mostly in contributing to the Hillary Clinton campaign. It is part of the delight of a career in Washington that anything rash that Trump did regarding their investigation, such as firing them, could itself be the High Crime of obstruction. The investigators threw several Trump associates in prison, just to keep their skills high.
A mere two years and one Attorney General later, Bob Barr told Mueller it was probably time to report. When the dust died down, Congress had not impeached Trump. This outraged the Members, as another election was closing in and Congress had not done anything else either. Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw it open to four of her committees to find those High Crimes, issue subpoenas, and see if Trump began to react so poorly as to finally be grounds for removal.
The basis was, as set out above, that the House was controlled by the opposition Democrats. The plucky effort continued despite the obvious obstacles: The Senate, which would conduct the Fair Trial, was controlled by Trump's own party, and the Vice President again served his only important function, to make the nation not want mishap to befall the President. Mike Pence was squeaky clean (frustrating plans by writers at Slate that he would appoint Hillary his own Vice President, then do the right thing and resign) and showed every sign of turning White House press conferences into tent revivals no one in the Press Corps could sit through.
The nominal basis, by comparison, was that Trump had telephoned the brand-new President of Ukraine and uttered the key phrase, "Do me a favor." Favor-trading with a foreign government, only years after Hillary charged that Trump had been favor-trading with incontinent Russian prostitutes, had to be a High Crime. The President had to be removed and there was no time to waste — until Speaker Pelosi stuck the Bill of Impeachment in her brassiere for a full month.
In January 2020, however Pelosi took it out, had it fumigated, and walked it over to the Senate. Though the original favor was that Ukraine help Trump investigate a Joe Biden payola, now Joe was pressing flesh in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, while each of his caucus opponents would be sat in Washington for weeks of emergency lawyering.