Why is Presidential Impeachment So Different Every Time?

How impeachment plays out has everything to do with the political climate and the president's personality.

In 1974, just the threat of impeachment was enough to push President Richard Nixon to resign from office.

Contrary to what you might remember from history class, Nixon was never actually impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” related to the Watergate scandal. Instead, he stepped down when he realized the evidence was damning, his political support was gone and he was likely to be convicted and removed via impeachment.

But though he was never officially impeached, he’s the only president to have left office because of an impeachment process.

President Bill Clinton was impeached — but stayed for the rest of his second term. Back in the 1800s, President Andrew Johnson was impeached, too, but also remained in office. Neither was convicted of the crimes they were impeached for, which would have resulted in removal from office.

Impeachment in 2019

So where does that leave President Donald Trump?

An impeachment inquiry was launched by the U.S. House of Representatives in September after a whistleblower report alleged Trump had used his office for personal gain, most notably to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate political opponent Joe Biden.

But rather than backing down, Trump has pushed back. The presidential impeachment process has been so different every time because the outcome is linked so closely to the personality of the president and the political whims of the time, said Robert J. McWhirter, attorney, constitutional historian and author of “Bills, Quills and Stills: An Annotated, Illustrated, and Illuminated History of the Bill of Rights.”

First of all, what’s considered an impeachable offense has been inconsistent.

“If you compare, for instance, what people thought the standard was in 1974, compared with what they ended up impeaching Bill Clinton for, it’s different,” McWhirter said. “In a sense they lowered that bar greatly.”

Nixon committed a criminal offense, but “Clinton was impeached for something that didn’t involve public trust,” basically sexual impropriety, McWhirter said. However, “an impeachable offense is whatever the majority of Congress thinks it is at that moment in history.”

And how a president reacts to the threat of impeachment depends on their personality, as well as their popularity.

“Richard Nixon was smart enough… to realize he had been caught and there was no way he was politically going to beat that back,” McWhirter said. “He basically saw the writing on the wall.”

But Clinton’s impeachment was unpopular with the American people, and only made Clinton, a Democrat, more popular. After the proceedings, his approval rating peaked at 73 percent, the highest of his presidency. It didn’t make political sense for him to resign like Nixon did.

“If the people are not in agreement with it, it is a terrible political move to try to impeach a president,” McWhirter said. After Clinton’s impeachment, Republicans who were pushing for it “lost a huge amount of political power. The American people were not in support of impeachment (and) the Republicans ended up paying at the next midterm election.”

That’s why the Democrat-controlled House has been slow to launch a Trump impeachment inquiry, he said. But Gallup Poll numbers from this week show 52 percent of Americans agree with his impeachment and removal. And the Ukraine accusation provides something straightforward to investigate.

How it works

Impeachment is complicated, and “most Americans today misunderstand what constitutes an impeachable offense because politicians in the current era have tried to dilute the meaning of the word,” said David Reischer, attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com.

“What we often refer to as ‘impeachment’ is in fact two separate processes with several steps within it,” said Jaye Pool, a researcher with a Ph.D. in political science and host of the political podcast Potstirrer.

“Impeachment is the process where the House of Representatives investigates and essentially chooses to indict the president, or charges him with offenses that could disqualify him from the presidency. … Removal, or conviction, is the process where the Senate holds a trial and, by two-thirds vote, can vote to remove the president from office.”

It’s really hard to remove a president this way. In fact, it’s never been done.

“While articles of impeachment can be issued by a simple majority in the House, removal by the Senate requires a two-thirds vote,” Pool said. That means it’s “very difficult to remove a president without bipartisan support, even if the Senate majority is of a different party than the president.”

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What it means for 2020

Trump has taken to Twitter to defend himself against accusations of wrongdoing.

But regardless of how Trump is responding to the impeachment process, it will likely impact him in the 2020 election, McWhirter said.

“The entire narrative now is the discussion of the impeachment process,” he said. “If you’re a president, even Donald Trump, you don’t want the word ‘president’ said in the same sentence as ‘impeachment.'”

It distracts from the narrative of the positive things a president is doing for the country, which is the narrative any president wants to promote.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.