The Impeachment Process

The question of impeachment has been looming in the minds of many Americans. How exactly does it work?

President Bill Clinton and President Andrew Johnson, the only two US presidents to be impeached. (Official Photos)

President Bill Clinton and President Andrew Johnson, the only two US presidents to be impeached. (Official Photos)

Among Americans, there tends to be confusion about what exactly impeachment means. At times, impeachment has been conflated with removal from office and a nuanced understanding of the process goes unexplained. While impeachment can be directed at any civil officer of the United States, we’re going to discuss what it means for the President of the United States.

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What is impeachment?

Impeachment was written into the Constitution as a mechanism to hold the President of the United States accountable for wrongdoing. Rather than a direct indictment by way of the justice system, the legislative branch is responsible for impeaching the president. Article II of the Constitution defines it:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The ultimate result of a successful impeachment in the House of Representatives, and a subsequent conviction in the Senate, is the removal from office. As defined in Article I of the Consitution, “the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” This means after the President is removed from office, they could still be indicted.

What is a high crime and misdemeanor?

“High Crimes and Misdemeanors” are not defined by the Constitution, but they have been given broad meaning by the Founding Fathers, precedent, and government officials throughout history. In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton defined impeachable offenses as those that violate the public trust.

“A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Former President Gerald Ford’s framing of impeachable conduct is how Congress has viewed “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” especially in modern history. Ford said: “An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

Who can impeach the president?

Article I of the Constitution designates the House of Representatives as the only chamber of Congress that has the power to launch an impeachment inquiry and file articles of impeachment against the President. After articles of impeachment pass the House, they are then sent to the Senate where a trial is held and a decision on whether to convict (remove the President from office) is made.

How the impeachment process works

In order to launch a formal impeachment inquiry, which is an investigation into the President’s conduct, the House Judiciary Committee needs to pass a resolution to open the inquiry by a simple majority. The resolution then moves to the full House floor for a vote where it needs a simple majority (218 votes) to pass.

The House impeachment inquiry

Once the resolution passes, the House Judiciary Committee is endowed with grand jury powers or a Select Committee is formed. This provides the committee with increased investigatory powers that allows them to more effectively compel testimony, obtain documents, and enforce subpoenas. According to legal experts, when the House Judiciary Committee has launched an impeachment inquiry, they’re more likely to secure favorable court rulings due to their enhanced legal standing.

Articles of impeachment

Think of impeachment as an indictment of the President and the articles of impeachment as individual counts. Impeachment does not equal removal from office.

The Senate impeachment trial

The majority leadership in the Senate decides exactly how, and if, an impeachment trial will be conducted. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial as Senators become jurors and representatives of the House act as prosecutors presenting evidence.

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What happens if a US president is impeached?

If the Senate votes to remove the President from office after an impeachment trial, the Vice President then takes their place in the Oval Office.

How many US presidents have been impeached?

There have only been two presidents impeached in American history: President Andrew Johnson and President Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted by the Senate. Articles of impeachment were crafted for President Richard Nixon but he resigned before they were filed.

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Law // Congress / Constitution / Impeachment