WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump took to Twitter Wednesday promising to fight any effort by House Democrats to impeach him for, in the Constitution’s vague words, “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Trump said that “not only are there no ‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ there are no Crimes by me at all.”
The presidential tweets were among many Trump has broadcast since last week’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Mueller detailed 10 allegations of Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation that left open whether the president broke the law.
If the House decides to pursue an impeachment investigation, representatives would have to decide whether the material in Mueller’s report constitutes an impeachable offense. The Constitution doesn’t provide much help in determining what are high crimes or misdemeanors, but lawmakers in impeachment proceedings against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton believed obstruction of justice qualified.
The Constitution provides for the impeachment and removal of the president, and other officers of the government, for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The first two crimes are relatively easy to understand, but “high crimes and misdemeanors” are hard to define.
In 1970, then-House Republican Leader Gerald Ford, defined an impeachable offense as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives” would vote for.
Ford’s description may have been technically accurate — it takes a majority vote in the House to impeach — but many legal scholars find what Ford said too nakedly political and not in accord with U.S. history.
High crimes and misdemeanors are vague and open-ended because, like other constitutional provisions, they were intended to last long beyond the lives of the designers of the Constitution, Georgia State University law professor Neil Kinkopf wrote on the bipartisan National Constitution Center’s website.
A guide to what those words can mean is found in the impeachments of two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Clinton, and proceedings that were begun in the House against Nixon. He resigned after the House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against him, but before the full House acted in 1974.
Johnson and Clinton survived trials in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required for conviction.
Clinton and Nixon both faced obstruction of justice charges. The House Judiciary Committee also approved impeachment articles against Nixon for abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Clinton also was impeached for lying to a grand jury.
In Nixon’s case, the Judiciary Committee rejected impeachment over the secret bombing in Cambodia and Nixon’s personal finances. Some committee members said neither qualified as the kind of offense that merited impeachment.
When Clinton was impeached, the full House voted down a second charge of perjury and a charge of abuse of power.
In 1868, Johnson’s impeachment was the culmination of a bitter dispute between the president and the Republicans who controlled the House over Reconstruction following the Civil War. The specific trigger for impeachment was Johnson’s attempt to fire Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who favored a tougher approach than Johnson to the defeated South. Nine of 11 impeachment articles concerned the head of the War Department.
In practical terms, impeachment has been used rarely since the Constitution was ratified in 1789. Twenty people in all, including Johnson and Clinton, have been impeached and only eight officials, all federal judges with lifetime tenure, have been convicted and removed from office.
The infrequency of impeachment reflects that, at least for the nation’s chief executive, it “can only be justified on the ground that the President has committed acts so dangerous to the public that the President may not be allowed to remain in office until the next election,” Kinkopf wrote.