A Historical Tutorial On Impeachment, Censure
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (March 11) -- Impeachment means indictment, the
act of bringing charges against the president. The House of
Representatives has the sole power to impeach a president, by
After impeachment, the president goes on trial in the Senate,
where a two-thirds vote is needed to convict him and remove him
Only one president has actually been impeached: Andrew
Johnson in 1868, for defying the will of Congress by removing a
cabinet official without the consent of the Senate. But President
Johnson survived. The Senate failed to convict him, by a single
In President Richard Nixon's case, the House of
Representatives voted to authorize the Judiciary Committee to
investigate the Watergate affair in February 1974. In July, the
committee voted to report three articles of impeachment to the
House. Ten days later, Nixon resigned. The House never had to
vote on impeachment.
The Constitution says the president "shall be removed from
office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or
other high crimes and misdemeanors." What does that mean?
Then-House minority leader Gerald Ford put it this way in
1970: "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House
of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in
Can't Starr simply indict the president on criminal charges?
There is debate on this issue, but the more widely held view
is that a president cannot be indicted while he is in office. It
would incapacitate an entire branch of government. That's why the
grand jury investigating Watergate named Nixon an unindicted
The president must first be impeached and removed from
office. Then he can be indicted, which is why President Ford
decided to pardon Nixon after he resigned.
There's another possibility, discussed by Senate Majority
Leader Trent Lott last weekend.
"The House could say, 'Well, it's
not serious enough for impeachment, but this is clearly conduct
that is on the margin that we don't approve of,' and the House
Judiciary Committee would report out a censure resolution and the
House would vote on it," Lott said on CNN's "Evans & Novak."
When asked if the Senate would approve such a move, Lott
responded, "The Senate would act on it, too, probably, yes."
Has any president ever been censured? Yes, there was one: Andrew
Jackson, in 1834. The Senate censured Jackson for defying its
will by removing government deposits from the Bank of the United
Jackson ignored the censure. He charged the Senate was
violating the Constitution because the censure charged him with
an impeachable offense, and only the House could bring
impeachment charges against the president. Jackson's censure was
expunged from the Senate record three years later.
That may be why Senator Lott was very careful to state a
motion of censure would have to originate in the House of
Representatives, and not in the Senate.