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What have presidents been impeached for? The articles of impeachment for Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump

Comparing past impeachments to Trump's
Comparing past impeachments to Trump's 09:12

Lies. Obstruction. Abusing power. Defying Congress.

Sound familiar?

Those were the charges that led to President Trump becoming the third U.S. president to be impeached. But they're also similar to the allegations that fueled America's few previous presidential impeachment proceedings.

Before Mr. Trump, only two presidents in U.S. history had been impeached — Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was removed from office. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after articles of impeachment were drafted but before the House could vote on them.

Mr. Trump is now set to face a Senate trial that will determine whether he is removed. 

The Constitution says presidents and other federal officials can be impeached for "Treason, Bribery and other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." No president has faced impeachment articles for treason or bribery; all impeachment cases so far came down to what Congress considered to be "High Crimes and Misdemeanors." 

The phrase "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is not defined in the Constitution, leaving it up to Congress to decide what qualifies in any particular case. Historians and legal scholars say it's generally understood to mean a serious abuse of the public trust. 

Here's a look at what led past presidents — and the one we have now — facing impeachment and removal. 

How impeachment works

The House has the power to impeach the president, and the Senate, in a separate process, then decides whether to remove an impeached president from office.

The House drafts articles of impeachment outlining the president's alleged offenses, and can vote to impeach him with a simple majority vote on any of the articles. However, impeachment in the House is not enough to remove a president from office.

The Senate then holds an impeachment trial, and ultimately votes on whether to convict or acquit the president on the articles approved by the House. A two-thirds majority of senators would need to vote for conviction in order to remove the president.

L-R: Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 but not convicted; Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached in 1974; Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 but not convicted. Library of Congress via AP; Getty Images

Andrew Johnson

What happened?

The 17th president was the first to be impeached.

Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, was President Abraham Lincoln's running mate for Lincoln's second term. Just 42 days after becoming vice president, Johnson ascended to the presidency following Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. This put him in charge of a country still reeling from the Civil War, and he was soon clashing with Congress over how to handle Reconstruction. 

Johnson favored a lenient approach to the former Confederate states and shocked lawmakers with some of his vetoes, including his veto of a bill that would have provided food, shelter and aid to newly freed African Americans and Southern refugees.

The final straw came in 1868, when Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a Lincoln appointee who opposed Johnson's approach to Reconstruction. House Republicans said this violated the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed one year earlier that said the Senate must approve the president's dismissal of a cabinet member he appointed. (Johnson vetoed that bill, but Congress overrode him. The Supreme Court ruled in 1926 that the Tenure of Office Act was invalid, and it is no longer enforced.)

What did the impeachment articles say? 

In February 1868, the House voted in favor of an impeachment resolution against Johnson. A week later, the House adopted 11 articles of impeachment.

Most of the articles centered on Johnson's dismissal of Stanton, alleging that the move defied the Senate and violated the Constitution. One article accused Johnson of unlawfully ordering that all military orders had to come from the General of the Army. 

Another article said Johnson gave speeches that attempted "to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States." That article said Johnson had declared "with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues," and that he had uttered "loud threats and bitter menace" toward Congress.

The text of the impeachment articles repeatedly said that Johnson was "unmindful of the high duties of his oath of office."

What was the outcome? 

Only three of the impeachment articles were voted on by the Senate — two about the appointment of Stanton's replacement, and one about insulting and disrupting Congress. 

On each of these three articles, the Senate acquitted Johnson by a single vote. He remained in office until 1869, leaving after one term when he failed to win his own party's nomination.

Richard Nixon

What happened?

Nixon, a Republican, resigned before facing a formal impeachment vote. But he was the first president since Johnson to have impeachment articles drafted against him. 

The impeachment process for Nixon started in October 1973, after the Watergate scandal had dragged on for more than a year. 

Nixon consistently resisted House subpoenas as the Watergate investigation intensified. The impeachment process began just days after the "Saturday Night Massacre," when Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, Archibald Cox, and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.

In the impeachment proceedings, Nixon was not directly implicated in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. Rather, the focus was on his efforts to obstruct the Watergate investigation.

What did the impeachment articles say?

The House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon in July 1974.

The first said Nixon had worked with subordinates to "delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation" into the Watergate break-in to "cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities."

The second article said the president had "repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens" by "impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries."

The third article focused on Nixon's resistance of subpoenas from the House committee. It said the president had "interposed the powers of the Presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives, thereby assuming to himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives."

What was the outcome?

The House Judiciary Committee approved all three articles, but the articles never reached a full House vote. An impeachment seemed inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the White House to release the tape of a phone call that showed Nixon had ordered a cover-up of Watergate. Even the Republican House leader said he would vote to impeach Nixon. 

Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. He became the first, and so far only, U.S. president to resign. And even though he was not technically impeached, he was also the first president to leave office due to an impeachment process.

Bill Clinton

What happened?

More than 130 years after Johnson's impeachment, Clinton, a Democrat, became the second president to be impeached. 

Clinton's impeachment process sprouted from the Starr Report — the result of a four-year independent counsel investigation into his administration — and from a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a woman accusing Clinton of sexual misconduct. 

In a deposition for the Jones lawsuit, Clinton falsely claimed that he did not have a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Starr Report said Clinton tried to cover up his affair with Lewinsky, and had pressured his secretary Betty Currie to repeat his denials.

What did the impeachment articles say?

The Republican-held House drafted four articles of impeachment against Clinton, but only two were approved.

The first article that passed said Clinton had provided "perjurious, false and misleading testimony" to a grand jury in the Jones case. It was approved in a 228–206 vote.

The second approved article, which passed with a 221–212 vote, said Clinton had "obstructed justice in an effort to delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence related to the Jones case."

An article for a second perjury count, and another article accusing Clinton of abuse of power, failed to get a majority vote.

Clinton was impeached in December 1998.

What was the outcome?

A Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Clinton on both charges in February 1999. The Senate trial resulted in 45 "guilty" votes for perjury and 50 "guilty" votes on obstruction — both short of the two-thirds vote needed to convict and remove the president. 

All 45 Democrats in the Senate voted "not guilty" on both charges, and several Republicans joined them, with some arguing that Clinton did not deserve to be removed from the White House for these offenses.

Clinton remained in office and completed his second term. 

Donald Trump

What happened?

Some congressional Democrats, as well as protesters nationwide, began calling for President Trump's impeachment right after he took office. But it took an anonymous whistleblower complaint, in the third year of his presidency, to eventually make it happen.

The complaint filed in August 2019 sounded the alarm about a phone call Mr. Trump had with another world leader. It turned out that Mr. Trump, in July 2019, had asked the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to "do us a favor" and pursue politically-loaded investigations, while withholding U.S. military assistance that had been approved by Congress.

One issue he president raised involved a disproven conspiracy theory that Ukraine somehow interfered in the 2016 election. He also pressed for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden — a leading Democrat in the 2020 presidential race — and his son, Hunter, who held a paid position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was vice president. 

Earlier in July, Mr. Trump had ordered a freeze on $391 million in security aid to Ukraine that Congress had approved. The U.S. ultimately released the aid in September, after the whistleblower complaint, and Ukraine never launched either investigation.

Days after news of the whistleblower complaint emerged in September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry in the Democrat-controlled House. During the hearings that followed, former and current Trump administration officials testified about an irregular diplomatic channel in Ukraine involving the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and stressed that the freeze on aid undermined U.S. as well as Ukrainian national security. 

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified that there was a "quid pro quo" conditioning the security aid and a White House meeting on Mr. Trump's requests to Zelensky.

During the inquiry, the White House refused to comply with House subpoenas for documents and witness testimonies. The president insisted that his call with Ukraine's president was "perfect." 

What did the impeachment articles say?

House Democrats settled on two articles of impeachment: Abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The abuse of power article said Mr. Trump had "openly and corruptly" solicited political investigations from Ukraine and conditioned official acts on his requests. "President Trump engaged in this scheme or course of conduct for corrupt purposes in pursuit of personal political benefit," it said.

The obstruction of Congress article cited Mr. Trump for withholding documents and ordering officials to not testify. "In violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed — Donald J. Trump has directed the unprecedented, categorical, and indiscriminate defiance of subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives pursuant to its 'sole Power of Impeachment," it said.

Mr. Trump's Republican defenders criticized the articles as partisan and political, noting that abuse of power and obstruction of Congress are not criminal offenses. They also criticized House Democrats for rushing the process instead of waiting for courts to rule on the subpoenas.

What was the outcome?

On December 18, the House impeached Mr. Trump on both articles. The vote tally was 230-197 for abuse of power, and 229-198 for obstruction of Congress. Those are the two highest vote tallies ever in support of impeachment articles. 

No Republicans voted in favor of either article. Two Democrats voted against the abuse of power article, three voted against the obstruction article, and one (Tusli Gabbard, who is also running for president) simply voted "present" for both. 

The next step in the process is for the Senate to hold a trial, which is likely to start in early 2020. It would require 67 votes on either article to remove Mr. Trump for office — meaning that every Democratic senator and at least 20 Republicans would have to vote for his conviction. So far no Republican senator has indicated they'd vote to remove President Trump, who remains popular with the base of the party.

This is an updated version of a story first published on October 11, 2019.

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