A look back at the two previous times the United States impeached its president

By Sean Neumann
December 19, 2019 12:54 PM
Credit: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

In a historic vote on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night, President Donald Trump became only the third president in United States history to ever be impeached.

The impeachment was certainly a unique moment indicative of modern times: President Trump campaigned in Michigan and trashed the decision while members of Congress were casting their votes in D.C., both broadcast live.

And the president was never far from the conversation online, shooting off live tweets while the House of Representatives debated the articles of impeachment in connection with his Ukraine scandal.

President Donald Trump
| Credit: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty

While Wednesday’s drama played out in real-time, the other two impeachment moments in American history were notably different.

Former President Bill Clinton, 1998

Former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 was the most recent time in American history that a sitting president risked the threat of being removed from office. It also now offers the most vivid glimpse at what the impeachment process looks like under the lights of 24-hour news cameras.

Following the news about President Clinton’s in-office affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the Clinton impeachment became a media spectacle — especially due to his vehement denial of any wrongdoing, in which he adamantly stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” on live TV.

Interest waned, however, after a nearly year-long investigation into Clinton’s extramarital affairs (comparatively, the investigation into Trump’s Ukraine scandal started in late summer and lasted a little over two months) before the Christmas-time impeachment. One local Mississippi headline read: “Mississippians ignore impeachment, finish Christmas shopping instead,” the Washington Post recently recounted.

President Bill Clinton
| Credit: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

Investigations into Clinton occured between private lawyers — most notably through a now-infamous Ken Starr report — and officially through Congress later in the year, leading to members of the House of Representatives charging the then-president with four articles of impeachment and impeaching him on two of them (lying under oath and obstruction of justice).

Ironically, Clinton was impeached nearly 21 years to the day Trump was, on December 19, 1998.

Before the impeachment, President Clinton appeared at a podium in the White House rose garden and apologized for his actions, which led to his historic sanction.

“I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds,” President Clinton said. “I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply I gave into my shame.”

Notably, President Trump took a different tone Wednesday night, loudly criticizing the impeachment process, calling it a “witch hunt,” and even mocking the recently deceased husband of one Democratic House member.

Clinton faced a trial early in the new year — again, much like Trump is expected to in early 2020. President Clinton was acquitted on his two charges like former President Andrew Johnson was before him — the only other president to be impeached, at the time.

Former President Andrew Johnson

Former President Andrew Johnson was the first American leader to be impeached by Congress, way back in 1868. Johnson’s impeachment — and subsequent acquittal in the Senate — laid the groundwork for what Americans know impeachment to be.

The then-president faced 11 charges of impeachment in 1868 when the House of Representatives drafted articles recommending his removal after a series of White House appointments and firings — moves that Johnson made either against Congress’ will or without alerting them to his actions.

President Andrew Johnson
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Johnson was adamant about his innocence and angry, too, giving a number of impassioned speeches railing against Congress and even at one point calling for Pennsylvania Rep. Thad Stevens’ hanging, according to the Washington Post.

Johnson was acquitted of the charges of impeachment a few days later, in a speedy political process that helped lay the groundwork to ensure impeachment was not abused for partisan purpose and helping balance the executive and legislative powers in government.

Even Rep. Stevens — who traded jab after jab with Johnson throughout the process — made that intention clear.

“This is not to be the temporary triumph of a political party,” Stevens told the House before it voted to impeach Johnson, “but is to endure in its consequence until this whole continent shall be filled with a free and untrammeled people or shall be a nest of shrinking, cowardly slaves.”

Johnson’s impeachment and acquittal soon after was the closest a president has ever come to being removed from office via the process. It’s unlikely President Trump will be removed from office, either, seeing as he has enough support in the Republican-led Senate to be quickly acquitted of Wednesday night’s impeachment charges.

Still, if history is any indication, impeachment is a lasting mark on a president’s legacy.

“Our president holds the ultimate public trust,” said New York Rep. Jerry Nadler earlier this month. “When he betrays that trust and puts himself before country, he endangers the Constitution, he endangers our democracy and he endangers our national security. The framers of the Constitution prescribed a clear remedy for presidents who so violate their oath of office. That is the power of impeachment.”