It was just a week ago that Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump. You’re not alone if it feels like a million news cycles have passed since, or if your knowledge of impeachment doesn’t extend beyond YouTube explainers and, well, memes.
An impeachment inquiry doesn’t guarantee articles of impeachment will be brought against President Trump, or that he’ll be removed from office. Impeachment is so rare, in fact, that no president has been convicted and removed from office after being impeached, perhaps because the grounds for impeachment are not clearly defined in the Constitution. If, as an informed citizen invested in the outcome, you’d like to learn more about the impeachment process and the circumstances that led to the impeachment of presidents past, here are some reading materials that might be of interest:
In this book, Harvard law professor Cass R. Sunstein sets the record straight on a number of misconceptions around impeachment—including what qualifies as “high crimes and misdemeanors,” part of the criteria for impeaching a president—and explores hypothetical scenarios, some of which may seem familiar, that may or may not lay the groundwork for impeachment. Sunstein doesn’t name names, though his book was published in 2017. “With the goal of neutrality in mind,” Sunstein writes in the first chapter, “I am not going to speak of any current political figure. I am going to focus on the majesty, and the mystery, of impeachment under the U.S. Constitution.”
For a specific analysis of President Trump’s impeachable offenses, there’s a recent book by Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Congresswoman who served on the House Judiciary Committee that investigated Watergate and voted to impeach Richard Nixon. “The book really forced me to think this through,” Holtzman told the Associated Press. “There’s so much news every day being thrown at you that it’s hard to separate it all out. When I did, it became clear there was a basis for proclaiming the president had committed high crimes and misdemeanors.” Her book is also a response to one published a few months prior, in which Alan Dershowitz outlines the case against impeachment.
In this book, prominent legal scholar Laurence Tribe and his former student Joshua Matz take a different tack, outlining the dangers of impeachment. Impeachment talk was en vogue well before Trump, they claim, a departure from the rhetoric prior to 1992; threats of impeachment could benefit a party that wanted to drum up political engagement. They argue the question of whether to impeach a president is a political, not legal one.
“Under most circumstances, removing the president from office this way is bound to be divisive and disheartening,” the authors write. “Even when taking that step is fully justified, the price may be higher and the benefits more modest than some would envision.”
To date, only three presidents have been faced with impeachment charges, the circumstances of which are examined in this book. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, while Richard Nixon was on the cusp of impeachment when he decided to resign. (The House Judiciary Committee had approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon, but the House had not yet voted on them.)
But none of them were removed from office through the impeachment process: Johnson and Clinton were both acquitted by the Senate. “The reason that impeachment was kept on the shelf for over a hundred years after the Johnson impeachment process was that it was viewed by all sides in the American political community as highly partisan,” Timothy Naftali, one of the authors, said in an interview with NPR. “But it doesn’t always have to be the case. And in the Nixon era—a period when I think we saw a model impeachment process—the democratic leadership bent over backwards to make the process as bipartisan as possible.”
In 1868, Johnson—the racist, accidental president who took the helm after President Lincoln’s assassination—became the first to be impeached. Writer Brenda Wineapple tells the story of how Johnson’s presidency drove the Republican party, at the time the more liberal party, to call for his impeachment. In the 1866 midterm elections, the Republicans won a majority in both houses of Congress, but impeaching a president from a different party proved complicated. By the time Johnson was impeached, he had even lost favor with his own party—and still, he was acquitted following a two-month trial in the Senate.
This famed retelling of the investigation that uncovered the Watergate scandal needs no introduction, especially if you’ve seen the film version. It was published by the pair responsible for breaking the story—Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—less than two months before Nixon resigned.
Consider this career advice for presidential candidates—and possibly a resource for the person currently occupying the Oval Office, too. Author Corey Brettschneider had originally planned on writing a book that detailed Trump’s interpretation of the Constitution, but he opted instead to educate readers on the text of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, including historical context and advice for future presidents. The takeaway for aspiring presidential candidates? If you want to be president, you should understand the tenets of the Constitution—even if it doesn’t hold all the answers.