The FX drama American Crime Story: Impeachment looks at one presidential impeachment trial, but Bill Clinton isn’t the only POTUS to be impeached. Since 2011, FX and co-creator Ryan Murphy‘s American Horror Story has been an annual TV event, and despite – or maybe because of – how crazy it can get, never ceases to be a hot topic in pop culture conversations. It’s really no wonder that in 2016, the decision was made to expand the franchise with a new anthology show, American Crime Story.
American Crime Story made a splash right away, dramatizing the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, which captivated the country in the mid-1990s. Simpson had been a hall-of-famer in the NFL, but was accused of murdering his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. 2018’s second season focused on the murder of acclaimed fashion designer Gianni Versace. Now, with 2021’s season 3, American Crime Story will look at the notorious case of an adulterous president and his subsequent battle with a hostile Congress.
For better or worse, a U.S. president isn’t subject to normal criminal law during their time in office, at least according to the interpretations of the Justice Department. The only real remedy for a president accused of criminal activity is the process of impeachment, in which the House of Representatives must vote to impeach, and the Senate then holds a trial and votes whether or not to convict and remove the president from office. Here’s a full rundown of every past U.S. presidential impeachment, and how things turned out. For those wondering where Richard Nixon is on the list, contrary to popular belief, he was never actually impeached–he resigned before that could occur.
America’s 16th president. Abraham Lincoln, was certainly a tough act to follow, with the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery and guiding a country through the Civil War, but it’s unlikely anyone predicted that Andrew Johnson would become the first U.S. commander-in-chief to ever be impeached. That means the process went nearly 100 years without being used after the Constitution was written. While Johnson was Lincoln’s vice president, he was actually of the opposite party, a Democrat, while Lincoln had been a Republican.
This led to lots of friction with a faction of the Republicans in Congress, eventually leading to 11 articles of impeachment being filed against him after a previous attempt to impeach him had failed. The main sticking point was Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which Congress had passed despite his veto. This act essentially said the president couldn’t fire certain executive branch officials without the approval of the Senate. Johnson was ultimately acquitted at trial, but only narrowly, with 35 senators voting to convict, one vote shy of the required two-thirds majority at the time. Interestingly, the Tenure of Office Act itself would later be repealed.
Democrat Bill Clinton’s impeachment during his second term in office is, of course, the subject of American Crime Story: Impeachment. Somewhat surprisingly, it once again took more than a century for another U.S. president to be impeached. Happening well into the age of 24-hour news cycles, the impeachment was a media circus, and traced back to Clinton’s sexual affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky, with he ultimately admitted to, among other accused dalliances. At first, though, Clinton denied that the Lewinsky affair happened, leading to the infamous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” TV moment.
Clinton was ultimately impeached by a Republican-controlled House that was, to be fair, vehemently opposed to him on just about everything at that point, with the articles of impeachment including obstructing justice, as well as lying under oath. While Clinton would become the second U.S. president to be formally impeached, he would also be the second to be acquitted, with both articles of impeachment failing to get the required votes to convict in the Senate. Many political scholars also assert that the impeachment actually hurt the accusers more than Clinton, who left office still quite popular.
Converted Republican Donald Trump is of course one of the most divisive presidents in U.S. history, with an army of both detractors and defenders numbering in the tens of millions. Trump became only the third president in American history to be impeached in December 2019, which traced back to a whistleblower report alleging an illegal quid pro quo, that Trump had attempted to pressure the government of Ukraine into looking for dirt on his likely 2020 election opponent Joe Biden by implying U.S. military aid to Ukraine hinged upon it.
The Democrat-controlled House filed two articles of impeachment against Trump, accusing him of abusing his power and obstructing Congress’ attempts to investigate that abuse. However, the Senate was controlled by Republicans, and in a controversial (many would say corrupt) decision, an attempt to even call witnesses for Trump’s trial was voted down. Trump was, like both presidents before him, acquitted on all counts, although for the first time ever, a member of the impeached president’s own party, Utah senator Mitt Romney, voted to convict him.
In an unprecedented situation on many fronts, Trump became the first U.S. president to ever be impeached twice in January 2021, not long before he was set to leave office after losing the 2020 election to current president Joe Biden. Trump was charged by the House with one count, “Incitement of Insurrection.” After a large mob of violent Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 in a seeming effort to prevent Biden’s win from being certified, the House argued that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and commands to “march down to the Capitol” encouraged their actions, which had been fomented months earlier by Trump’s repeated lies that the election had been stolen.
Oddly, the impeachment trial actually began a few weeks after Trump had left office, although the Republican-controlled Senate again voted to acquit him. Notably, seven Republican senators, including prior pro-conviction Romney, opted to join all the Democrats in voting to convict, although that still left the overall count 10 votes short of the needed 67 senators. So far, every president who’s been impeached has been acquitted, but many would argue that shows the process works, as the two-thirds threshold is designed to make sure it’s hard to remove a sitting president from office. Still, one wonders when the next president will end up facing trial in Congress, and whether it’ll ultimately be covered by a future season of American Crime Story.