The framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to check presidential power by creating a process for Congress to remove the president for reasons of “treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors.” No president has ever been removed from office in this fashion, but two presidents in the second half of the 20th century were subject to impeachment inquiries based on congressional definitions of “high crimes and misdemeanors”: Richard Nixon, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
The process for impeaching the president is spelled out in the Constitution, but has seen an added step produced by the committee system in Congress. The House Judiciary Committee originates the indictment against the president, producing one or more articles of impeachment to define the president’s “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The articles are then subject to a vote by the full House of Representatives and require a majority approval to impeach the president. The Senate then tries the president, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding. At the end of the trial the Senate votes; a twothirds majority is needed to remove the president.
The attempt to impeach Richard Nixon centered on the illegal activities committed by members of his administration and the attempted cover-up in which he participated. During the first term of his presidency, Nixon engaged in questionably legal activities such as the authorization of the FBI to tap the phones of administration officials and reporters to prevent leaks, and the authorization of the creation of an in-house investigative group, the Plumbers, to prevent leaks and embarrass “enemies” such as Daniel Ellsberg and Senator Edward Kennedy. This willingness to circumvent the law led directly to attempts by the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) to undermine potential
Democratic candidates and to seek information from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex. When men who were employed by CREEP staffers G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were apprehended in the Watergate on June 17, 1972, Nixon and his top aides responded by attempting to cover up the president’s involvement in the affair. A bipartisan majority of the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against President Nixon, centering on the abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and defiance of a congressional subpoena to turn over the tapes of recorded conversations. To avoid certain removal Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974.
At least in part, the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton appeared to grow out of a desire for revenge over the Nixon impeachment attempt. The Clinton administration was subject to several investigations by independent counsels and, after 1994, by the Republican-controlled Congress, both about the behavior of administration officials during his presidency and questions about the financial dealings of the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although Congress and independent counsel Kenneth Starr failed to uncover criminal activity by the president or his wife, they did determine that President Clinton had lied about conducting an extramarital affair with a White House intern.
The House Judiciary brought two articles of impeachment against the president on December 19, 1998, centering on lying to Congress and obstruction of justice. The full House voted to impeach the president on both articles on a near–party line vote. After trial by the Senate President Clinton was acquitted of both articles of impeachment on February 12, 1999. President Clinton served out his term in office.
Since in both cases of impeachment the president’s party did not control Congress, the process of impeachment has been tarred by the charge that partisanship, rather than presidential malfeasance, has been the primary motive for action. This charge had more resonance in the impeachment of President Clinton than in that of President Nixon because of the criminal acts committed by Nixon and his associates. Nevertheless, the process of impeachment remains a potential check on presidential power.