Impeachment of the US President: Causes and Process

From the lecture series: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

With power comes responsibility. However, at times, the presidents step out of line, or are perceived to have stepped out of line. What happens in such situations? Learn about impeachment, its causes, its process, and its history in the United States.

A gavel with the US flag in the background with impeachment written on it in capital letters.
The US Constitution is quite vague on the matter of impeachment. (Image: Stuart Miles/Shutterstock)

There are essentially only three ways that a president can be removed from office: the president can be defeated in a re-election bid, can be impeached and removed from office, or officers of the president’s own cabinet could remove the president if they are deemed incapacitated.

What Is Impeachment? 

The United States has not experienced too many impeachments and the Constitution is sufficiently vague on the matter, so there is no well-defined process for how it should work.

In practice, the House of Representatives or an independent council conducts an investigation about charges or claims that have been brought against a president, and if there is sufficient evidence or clamor for doing so, articles of impeachment are drafted.

Learn more about the US government’s structure.

Process of Impeachment

An impeachment is sort of like an indictment from a grand jury; a body of arbiters reviews evidence to determine if charges should be brought and then specify the charges if there’s reason to do so.

Photograph of Chief Justice presiding over an impeachment trial.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court serves as the main trial judge in the Senate during an impeachment trial. (Image: United States Senate/Public domain)

That’s what the House does during an impeachment inquiry, and once the articles of impeachment are specified, it can impeach a president with a standard majority vote. If the House impeaches, the charges then move to the Senate where a trial of the president is held.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court serves as the main trial judge, but the senators are the jury. The Senate conducts its trial and then takes a vote. If two-thirds of senators support removing the president, then the president is immediately removed from office. There is no higher court to which a president can appeal if he is dissatisfied with the outcome.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Causes for Impeachment

According to the Constitution, a president can be impeached and convicted for ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’. In practice, these terms are not well-defined as applied to the presidency.

For example, no one really knows what ‘other high crimes’ are; high crimes is not a legal term with some specific definition. So, while it is fairly well understood what would constitute treason and bribery, the Congress gets to decide what comprises the offense of high crimes. Given this, the Congress has a lot of leeway in determining what is an impeachable offense and what is not.

Impeachment: A Political Process

Technically, the House of Representatives could vote on a presidential impeachment without conducting any investigation at all. However, the fact that there is no well-worn path on this topic, and that presidents are a special category of leader, impeachment is, by and large, a political process much more than it is a legal one.

In other words, if the general public turns against a president due to some scandal or offensive action, Congress can impeach and remove that president from office if it votes to do so.

Learn more about the tactic of filibustering in the Senate.

Impeachments in US Political History

Only three presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998, and Donald Trump in 2019.

None of these presidents, Johnson, Clinton, or Trump, were removed from office because the Senate failed to convict them.

Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment and the House Judiciary Committee had drawn up three articles against him, but as new evidence was revealed to the public, he wound up resigning from office before a formal impeachment vote by the full House occurred.

Importance of Norms to Guide the Office of the Presidency

Photograph of Steven Levitsky.
Political scientists Steven Levitsky has studied the longevity and health of democratic governments around the globe. (Image: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars/Public domain)

The norms that guide the office of the presidency are perhaps as important as the formal institutions that provide its structure.

The political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written about the importance of norms by studying the longevity and health of democratic governments around the globe and across history. Specifically, there are two norms that they have shown are particularly important for ensuring long-lasting democracies. They call them mutual toleration and forbearance.

Norm of Mutual Toleration

For Levitsky and Ziblatt, mutual toleration means that political rivals respect one another’s right to exist. That is, a political party or candidate or office holder does not treat their political opponents as illegitimate, or criminal, or unworthy.

When political rivals do not tolerate one another, it undermines the authority and legitimacy that elections are supposed to provide to democratically elected leaders.

Norm of Forbearance

By forbearance, Levitsky and Ziblatt mean to suggest that when a party or an individual gains political power, they do not use every possible aspect of power that the office provides to make gains for their goals and defeat their opponents.

When parties show forbearance, they recognize that power oscillates from one part to another over time, and when your preferred party is not in power, you prefer not to be railroaded over. This shadow of the future, or anticipation that in a competitive democracy a party in power can quickly become a party not in power, restrains partisans from overexerting their power while in office.

Deterioration of Basic Democratic Values

Over the course of modern presidency, we have seen degradation of these norms, particularly over the last few years. Norm-violating actions have contributed to worsening polarization, as well as some deterioration of basic democratic values in the United States.

The nice thing about norms, however, is that they can be re-established, and it doesn’t require an act of Congress or an executive order to do so. It only requires a commitment to the preservation of democracy and the rights and privileges it provides to those who live under it.

Common Questions about Impeachment of the US President

Q: What are the ways that a president can be removed from office in the United States?

In the United States, there are essentially only three ways that a president can be removed from office: the president can be defeated in a re-election bid, can be impeached and removed from office, or officers of the president’s own cabinet could remove the president if the president is deemed incapacitated.

Q: When are articles of impeachment drafted?

The House of Representatives or an independent council conducts an investigation about charges or claims that have been brought against a president, and if there is sufficient evidence or clamor for doing so, articles of impeachment are drafted.

Q: According to the US Constitution, what can a president be impeached and convicted for?

According to the US Constitution, a president can be impeached and convicted for ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’.

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