So you want to talk impeachment? We get it. Democracy is hard, and sometimes your favored candidate loses no matter how many fliers you helped shove in voters’ hands. Disaffection with the U.S. political system is a national tradition and right now it’s historically high. According to Gallup polling, 42 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in political leaders, down from 63 percent in 2004. In general, the public’s confidence in government has been falling steadily since the late 1970s.
So here we are, with political pundits throwing the “I” word around to bait viewers into watching cable news, just like Elliot dropped Reece’s Pieces to lure E.T. home with him.
The impeachment process, though, involves several steps, and so far has a zero percent success rate in actually changing who sits in the Oval Office. The only two presidents to be impeached by the House of Representatives are Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and both of them served out the remainder of their terms after being acquitted by the Senate. Notably, in both cases the House majority was controlled by the opposition party.
So if you want to jump in your Chevy Volt and ride Interstate Impeachment, let’s take a look at what really lies ahead.
What is Impeachment?
The U.S. Constitution lays out a three-step process to remove “civil officers” such as the president, vice president and federal judges from office. Everything starts in the House, which has the authority to vote on articles of impeachment, with every article detailing a charge against the president. It takes a simple majority to vote to impeach.
Next, the matter moves to the Senate, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over a trial covering each article of impeachment. The House brings the case against the president, while the Senate sets the procedure. The president can appear at the trial, but never has in the past. Last, the Senate gets to take the final vote on whether or not to kick the commander in chief out of the White House. This time though, it takes 67 votes, two-thirds of the chamber, to convict.
Wait, wasn’t Nixon impeached?
Not technically. The House approved three articles of impeachment against him, but never had the chance to vote. Feeling the tide rising against him, Nixon resigned before Congress took action.
What about a recall?
Ahh yes. Some of you Terminator fans out there may remember the 2003 California recall that ousted Governor Gray Davis and swept in Arnold Schwarzenegger (he of the two families and creepy mobile game commercials).
Recalls are established by state law, and there is no federal recall mechanism. Womp womp.
What can you be impeached for?
Pretty much anything.
The forefathers took the time to detail two crimes that are impeachable offenses, treason and bribery. Then they threw out a more vague category of “other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
When Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, he had just replaced the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, and the Republican-dominated House had its knickers in a bunch because Johnson wanted to take it easy on the South during reconstruction. Congress passed a law requiring Senate approval to remove a cabinet member, but Johnson said “bugger off” (or something old-timey like that) and removed his war secretary, who had been appointed by Lincoln. Looking for a reason to bring an impeachment vote, the House pounced. The Senate, thanks to tried-and-true political maneuvering like deal making and possibly bribery, later acquitted Johnson, but he failed to garner the Democratic nomination for president later that year.
Bill Clinton was impeached, for the most part, because he lied under oath to a grand jury about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. During the scandal, several stories came out about other politicians’ extramarital affairs, and Penthouse publisher Larry Flynt offered a reward for information regarding such impropriety. Again the Senate acquitted, coming far from the 67 votes needed to send Clinton packing.
In the end, it’s up to the House, which has the sole power of impeachment, to decide what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and that changes with the era. According to historians, several racist and philandering men have pimpled our presidential lineup. Ulysses S. Grant, who took office after Johnson, was rocked by one scandal after another, most of which involved bribery—one of the explicitly impeachable offenses. Ronald Reagan deliberately circumvented an act of Congress when he secretly sold weapons to Iran and then funneled the money to the Contras, right-wing paramilitary groups attempting to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. But neither one of them ever sweated an impeachment hearing.
What do other countries do when they’re ready to consciously uncouple from their president?
Despite what recent history in Egypt, Niger and Thailand would have you believe, it is possible to remove a president without resorting to a coup d’etat. Judging from some recent examples, impeachment maybe even picking up momentum as the best way to change heads of state without too much turmoil.
In March, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was removed from office via impeachment over a bribery scandal that sent her approval ratings plummeting into the single digits. Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a prominent Shamanastic Christian cult leader and the president’s confidant, allegedly orchestrated many of the dubious deals. Now, Park is sitting in jail, awaiting trial on charges of abuse of power, coercion, bribery and leaking government secrets.
Amid large public protests and cratering approval ratings, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was impeached at the end of 2015 and convicted the next year. Rousseff was accused of participating in graft and government kickbacks involving the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, but the charge that stuck involved using state banks to finance social programs without properly accounting for the loans and necessary repayments—something the Brazilians call “fiscal pedaling.”
The lesson: Messing with the people’s money and high voter disapproval are key ingredients in the impeachment recipe.