Impeachment: How it Works and Why (Part 1 of 2)

Written by: Lim Junheng, Jovan (20-O5), Ng Teck Zhong (20-E5)

Designed by: Lay Kai En, Ashley (21-O1)

Introduction

Impeachment. For those of us who have been following the happenings in the United States of America (USA), you would be aware of the unprecedented impeachment proceedings, and ultimately, the impeachment of the 46th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. Yet, many of us may not know how the Impeachment proceedings actually work or why they were carried out. Read on to find out more!

What is Impeachment (in the Context of the USA)

According to the United States Senate’s official website, the impeachment process is when the “Congress charges and then tries an official of the federal government for ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors’”. Essentially, in the context of the President of the United States, it is a mechanism of checks and balances that allows for Congress to remove a sitting President if it is deemed necessary . Additionally, it is interesting to note that ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ are not clearly defined in the Constitution of the United States.

However, the impeachment process is not only applicable to the President. Other officials of the federal government may also be impeached, and the process to do so is the same. Ever since the United States of America was founded, the House has impeached a total of 19 federal officials, most of them being federal judges. Some of you might also know that two former Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have also been impeached. However, it is worth noting that both Johnson and Clinton were not convicted by the Senate.

How Does Impeachment in the USA Work?

Of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the lower House, also known as the House of Representatives, is responsible for the impeachment of the official. The upper House of the United States Congress, the Senate, is then responsible for holding a trial to determine if the accused is guilty as charged. 

Usually, the impeachment process begins with the fact-finding stage, where the House of Representatives determines if there is sufficient evidence for the official in question to be impeached. If it is so deemed, the House will proceed to draft an article of impeachment (or more), before that is put to a vote on the floor. Should a simple majority (more than 50% of all present voting in support of the article) be obtained, the official in question is now officially impeached, and the article(s) of impeachment that is adopted will then be transmitted to the Senate at a suitable time, as determined by the Speaker of the House, for the Senate to hold a trial.

Once the article(s) of impeachment reaches the Senate, the Senate will be required to convene and hold a trial to determine if the accused is guilty. A two-third majority is required to convict the official in question. In the case of the President, should he be convicted, the Senate can then vote to remove him from office and prevent him from holding office again, which will require a simple majority.

The Impeachment Process

Impeachment of Past Presidents: Why, How, and Public Opinion

President William Jefferson Clinton (Bill Clinton) — Impeachment Proceedings

As the second US president to have ever been impeached, many may have seen the clip of President Bill Clinton saying at a press conference, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”. He was referring to a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, whom he had been accused of having a sexual affair with. As peculiar as it may sound, this was in fact the basis for the impeachment proceedings of the president. In 1998, two articles of impeachment were adopted by the House of Representatives — for perjury (telling an untruth or making a misrepresentation under oath) as well as for obstruction of justice.

So how did this all begin? In 1994, a former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones sued President Clinton for sexual harassment. President Clinton had initially attempted to prevent further investigation by arguing that a sitting president was immune from civil cases while in office. Then, in 1996, Lewinsky began sharing to Pentagon co-worker Linda Tripp about the sexual relationship she had with the president back in 1995. 

Afterwards, in late 1997, Tripp secretly recorded the conversations with Miss Lewinsky, which had subsequently revealed that she had sexual relations with President Clinton. This was used by Paula Jones’s lawyers as proof that the president had sexually propositioned low-level employees. Following this, President Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to be “evasive in answering any questions” about the relationship. 

It was in 1998 when Lewinsky denied under oath of having a sexual relationship with President Clinton, just as he did the same with that famous one-liner, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” However, after eight months of lying to the country, President Clinton finally admitted to having an “inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky”.

It was then in December 1998 when the House of Representatives finally adopted two articles of impeachment against the president. In the end, President Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, on grounds of perjury to a grand jury (first article, 228–206) and obstruction of justice (third article, 221–212).

President William Jefferson Clinton (Bill Clinton) — Public Opinion

Throughout President Clinton’s impeachment process, his approval ratings remained high, averaging at about 60% to 70%. As compared to the Watergate scandal faced by President Richard Nixon (to be detailed in the next section), most Americans ignored the proceedings against Clinton, considering that only 34% of them had paid very close attention to it, according to a survey conducted after the impeachment vote. While most remained that President Clinton was wrong in trying to cover up his affair, many did not believe that he should have been impeached for it, as it was too excessive and harmful to the world’s perception of the US.

President Richard Milhous Nixon — Impeachment Proceedings

Many may have heard of the term “Watergate”, signifying the impeachment proceedings against President Nixon in 1974. Yet, not many  know the exact details about the Watergate political scandal, and hence, they shall be detailed below.

It all began when there was a report of a break-in on 17 June 1972 at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, resulting in the arrest of five men. At the time, the Nixon administration claimed that it was not involved in the break-in. Of the five men, three were Cuban exiles, one was a Cuban American, and the other was James W. McCord, Jr., a former CIA agent. It was further revealed that McCord was part of President Nixon’s re-election committee. 

Following that, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, reporters from the Washington Post, uncovered evidence of illegal political espionage carried out by the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP), as well as evidence of a secret fund and political spies hired for this purpose. However, despite all this, President Nixon was re-elected President in November 1973, with a landslide victory.

As the Watergate Committee began its investigations, President Nixon presented himself as completely innocent in a nationally televised address. This was a sign to those who were involved that they might have to be sacrificed. One by one, they appeared before the committee, while Nixon was still presumed innocent. During the hearings, Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon aide, revealed that there was a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office, a revelatory piece of information that would spell the downfall of the President. 

One notable event was the “Saturday Night Massacre”. Deemed to have put the country into a constitutional crisis, this event involved the firing of the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, Archibald Cox, by the President, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Ricahrdson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.

In July 1974, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment — for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Soon after, President Nixon finally complied with a Supreme Court ruling that required him to provide transcripts of the tapes. Then, a previously undisclosed audio-tape (“Smoking gun” tape) was released, which documented the initial stages of the Watergate cover-up. This ultimately revealed that President Nixon was complicit in the cover-up of his involvement, which shifted public opinion heavily. Afterwards, before the three articles were even voted on by the House, he resigned as President on 9 August, 1974. President Nixon was the first and only president to leave office due to an impeachment process.

One month later, as former Vice-President Gerald Ford took over office as President, he granted President Nixon a full pardon for any crimes he might have committed as President, to ensure that he would not face punishment when he was out of office. He believed that calling the end of the Watergate saga was in the country’s best interest.

President Richard Milhous Nixon — Public Opinion

After the “Smoking gun” tape was released by President Nixon, his political support was heavily affected. Not only did the Republican House leader say he would vote to impeach President Nixon, less than 15 senators were willing to consider an acquittal, which would almost certainly end in conviction. Besides, public opinion towards the President was also unfavourable. At the beginning of the Watergate hearings, only 19% of respondents in a Gallup poll believed that the President should be removed from office; when President Nixon announced his resignation, that number jumped to nearly 60%. 

Impacts and Implications of Impeachment

Impeachment, especially with regards to that of a sitting President, is a very grave matter, for it signifies that some have felt something major had happened, so much so that there is a need to impeach him. Public opinion is a major factor in influencing the outcome of any impeachment, for impeachment is a political process, not a judicial process. As shown in the above section, public opinion swung in two different directions for the above impeachments — in the case of Nixon, it led to his resignation from office. In the case of Clinton, since the public had felt that the party leading the effort did not make a compelling case for impeachment, it ultimately led to Clinton’s acquittal and the resignation of the person who started it, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Conclusion

With the impeachments of President Donald Trump still residing in the minds of many, it is important to take lessons from the impeachment proceedings of the past presidents, as we have elaborated on above. And while the circumstances of the past are certainly different from those today, it is still necessary to understand the significance of impeachment and how they help in maintaining the political stability in the United States in some way.

Do stay tuned for the second part of this article!

References and Citations

  1. Crary, D. (2019, September 24). A look at past impeachment proceedings and how they’ve ended. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/amp/politics/a-look-at-past-impeachment-proceedings-and-how-theyve-ended
  2. DeSilver, D. (2019, October 3). Clinton’s impeachment barely dented his public support, and it turned off many Americans. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/03/clintons-impeachment-barely-dented-his-public-support-and-it-turned-off-many-americans/
  3. Galston, W. A. (2019, September 27). Impeachment and public opinion: Three key indicators to watch. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2019/09/27/impeachment-and-public-opinion-three-key-indicators-to-watch/
  4. Glass, A. (2018, August 05). Watergate ‘smoking gun’ tape released, Aug. 5, 1974. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.politico.com/story/2018/08/05/watergate-smoking-gun-tape-released-aug-5-1974-753086
  5. HISTORY.com. (2009, November 24). House begins impeachment of Nixon. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/house-begins-impeachment-of-nixon
  6. HISTORY.com. (2010, February 09). President Bill Clinton acquitted on both articles of impeachment. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-clinton-acquitted
  7. HISTORY.com. (2010, February 09). Watergate burglars arrested. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/watergate-burglars-arrested-2
  8. Newbold, C. (2019, September 26). How Impeachment Works: An Infographic. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/2019/09/26/how-impeachment-works-an-infographic/
  9. Savage, C. (2019, September 24). How the impeachment process works. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/24/us/politics/impeachment-trump-explained.html
  10. Shepard, A. (2012, June 14). The man who revealed the Nixon tapes. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-man-who-revealed-the-nixon-tapes/2012/06/14/gJQAsEZUdV_story.html
  11. Shephard, A. (2019, October 03). How Richard Nixon lost the battle for public opinion. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://newrepublic.com/article/155228/richard-nixon-lost-battle-public-opinion-lessons-trump-impeachment
  12. Silverstein, J. (2021, February 15). What have presidents been impeached for? The articles of impeachment for Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/impeached-presidents-trump-clinton-nixon-johnson/#app
  13. United States Senate. (2021, March 03). About impeachment. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/impeachment.htm
  14. Van der Voort, T. (2019, November 06). Watergate: The cover-up. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/educational-resources/watergate/watergate-cover
  15. Williams, P., Moe, A., & V, F. (2019, December 19). What is impeachment and How does it Work? 10 facts to know. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/what-impeachment-how-does-it-work-10-facts-know-n1072451#anchor-4WouldpassingaresolutiongiveCongressauthoritytogetgrandjurymaterialsuchasevidencegatheredduringtheRobertMuellerinvestigation
  16. Yagoda, M. (2018, December 19). The infamous Moment Bill Clinton Denied affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/bill-clinton-monica-lewinsky-speech-affair-relationship-sexual-relations-impeachment-a8689511.html

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