Which other US presidents have been impeached?

Tom McCarthy
Photograph: Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is on the precipice of becoming the third president in US history to be impeached. It’s an exclusive club that no one wants to join – but who else is in it, and why?

Related: Five highlights from Trump's angry, bizarre letter to Nancy Pelosi

Here’s a look back at the two prior impeachments and a third near-miss case.

Impeachment #1: Andrew Johnson (1868)

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 unexpectedly elevated his vice-president, Johnson, an outspoken white supremacist but strong anti-secessionist, to the White House. With the aftershocks of the civil war manifesting in bloody voter suppression and racially motivated terrorism across the South, Johnson’s presidency was immediately thrown into tumult by demands that the new president take steps to cement the war’s promise of racial equality. But Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, unilaterally pardoned hundreds of former Confederate leaders and called for the murder of his political enemies.

Johnson was in essence impeached for undermining the cause of racial equality, the historian Brenda Wineapple wrote in her book The Impeachers.

But the bulk of the impeachment clauses against him were predicated on a relatively narrow charge of violating a contemporary “tenure of office” law (repealed soon thereafter) by removing his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who was instrumental in opposing racist attacks on suffrage for former slaves.

Johnson remained in office after being acquitted in the Senate by one vote – a bribed victory, historians have speculated.

Impeachment #2: Bill Clinton (1998)

While the Clinton impeachment is linked in popular memory to his relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he was impeached for lying to a grand jury in a separate case, brought by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones.

In response to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Jones, Clinton denied in a sworn deposition and a later video interview that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. That assertion was contradicted by a report submitted to Congress by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who documented Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky in lurid detail.

Impeachment proceedings against Clinton were opened in October 1998, and the House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against him, for perjury and obstruction of justice, in December. Two other proposed articles – for abuse of power and perjury a second time – were voted down.

The Republican-led Senate – stronger than today’s, with a 55-seat majority at the time – acquitted Clinton easily on both counts, with the closer case drawing only 50 votes out of 67 needed.

Near-miss: Richard Nixon (1974)

In November 1972, Nixon won re-election by what was then the largest margin of victory in the history of US presidential elections. But five months earlier, a burglary at Democratic offices in the Watergate hotel complex had set in motion a chain of events that would end his presidency.

In his investigation of the burglaries, special prosecutor Archibald Cox uncovered a dirty campaign to attack Nixon’s political opponents, financed by a secret slush fund and directed by Nixon himself. For months, Nixon publicly denied all involvement.

But an impeachment inquiry was opened in October 1973, after Nixon fired the top two officials in the justice department for their refusal to fire Cox. A fight over evidence ensued, including tapes of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations.

In late July 1974, a third of elected Republicans on the House judiciary committee joined Democrats to approve three articles of impeachment, for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. The release of a “smoking gun” tape a week later, fixing Nixon at the center of the conspiracy, sealed the president’s fate.

Under pressure from fellow Republicans, Nixon resigned on 9 August 1974, before the full House could vote on impeachment.