The political risks of impeachment

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) (center,L) stands to address the Senate during the proceedings to vote on the two impeachment charges against President Clinton February 12. The Senate rejected both counts, with neither charge getting a majority of votes. The House Managers are seen seated around a table at the center. RC/SV - RTRLUD2
Editor's note:

In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.

THE ISSUE: Conversation around potentially impeachable offenses committed by President Trump continues to dominate the news cycle. Yet despite this chatter from political commentators and even some members of Congress, the impeachment of a president whose party controls both the House and Senate would be both politically difficult and risky.

The most devastating outcome for a party would be to impeach a president from your own party and then fail to have the votes to remove him from office.


  • There are three times in American history when a president faced the serious reality impeachment or was impeached: Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, Richard Nixon faced impeachment in 1974, and Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998.
  • In two of those cases, for President Johnson and President Clinton, the impeachment was politically motivated.
  • Impeaching a president is difficult, but it is even more difficult to impeach a president of your own party. Under what circumstances does a Congress controlled by one party impeach the president of the same party?
  • It’s a politically difficult calculus for that party and it is something that becomes very risky if they can’t carry out an impeachment because under a unified government, members of Congress depend on many of the same supporters as the president.
  • In the contemporary context, voters who supported Donald Trump also supported Republican Members of both the House and the Senate. To try to remove the president risks, for many Republicans, alienating the supporters who voted for Donald Trump.
  • Under a unified government, if there is an intention to impeach and remove a president, the majority party in Congress has to weigh two things: will we suffer more politically if we impeach and remove a president? Or, will we suffer more if we allow that president to remain in office and continue to damage the party or the country?
  • Because of the political ramifications, you would not likely hear whispers of consideration of impeachment from the party until they were certain they could conjure majority support for impeachment in the House and 2/3 support for removal in the Senate.
  • The most devastating outcome for a party would be to impeach a president of your own party and then fail to have the votes to remove him from office.
  • Failure to collect votes to remove an impeached president in a unified government would cause the voters who supported that president to lash out against the party and the president himself would then lash out against the party in Congress. That is a lose-lose situation for a party under unified control.


Unpacked: The delicate process of impeachment