Former president Donald Trump became the first in history to be impeached twice during his presidency and was subsequently acquitted both times. While these processes made history, they also created some confusion about how the entire impeachment process works and the constitutional law that underlies the steps necessary to impeach and then remove a leader from office.
Many people use the term impeachment to refer to the process of an official being removed from office following a quasi-criminal proceeding. However, impeachment legally refers only to the quasi-criminal proceedings that come before removal, which is how a president can be impeached but not removed. If acquitted, the official can continue with the duties of the office with only a blemish on their record.
Impeachment involves a complex series of steps that the legislature takes, with each body holding different responsibilities. The House of Representatives undertakes what is essentially a grand jury inquest, while the Senate undertakes an entire trial with the Chief Justice presiding. Importantly, impeachment is not just directed at presidents, but all civil officers, including federal judgeships. However, the legislature delegates much of the impeachment process to committees when the office in question is lower than the presidency. Historically, seven judges have been found guilty and removed from office through the impeachment process. When the official involved is a president, all Congressional members must be involved in the proceedings.
An Overview of the Presidential Impeachment Process
The entire presidential impeachment process begins with the House Judiciary Committee, which deliberates on whether an impeachment inquiry is justified given the relevant circumstances. If the Judiciary Committee agrees to move forward with impeachment, they then adopt a resolution that seeks authority from the entire House of Representatives to conduct an official inquiry into the questioned action. The House votes on this resolution after sufficient debate. A majority vote is required for the resolution to pass. With that majority vote, the Judiciary Committee conducts the impeachment inquiry, which may include public hearings. Following this inquiry, representatives draft articles of impeachment that must be approved by a majority of the Judiciary Committee before getting introduced to the entirety of the House.
The entire House of Representatives reads and debates the articles of impeachment that were approved by the Committee. Each article needs a majority vote from the House to pass. If an article is approved by the majority, then the president is technically impeached and the entire process moves to the Senate.
For its part, the Senate holds a trial on the articles approved by the House. The members of the Senate serve as a jury while the Chief Justice oversees the proceedings. At the end of the trial, the Senate votes on whether to remove the president from office or acquit. A two-thirds majority is necessary for removal. Should the president be removed, the vice president assumes the position and chooses a new vice president, confirmed by Congress.
Notably, the Senate can vote to remove a person from office and bar that individual from ever holding public office again. This vote needs only a simple majority. However, the Senate cannot find an elected official criminally responsible since impeachment is a political rather than criminal proceeding. A president can face criminal charges at a later point related to the impeachment proceedings.
The History of Impeachment in the United States
In history, only two other presidents besides Trump have been impeached, and neither was removed from office. The first president to get impeached was Andrew Johnson in 1868. The impetus for impeachment was a clash with the House of Representatives over the rights of individuals who had been freed from slavery. However, the immediate justification for the impeachment was Johnson’s decision to fire his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who was backed by Republicans. In addition, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives at the time. The other president to get impeached was Bill Clinton. This trial centered around Clinton’s coverup of his affair with a White House intern. While the Senate was 22 votes short of finding Clinton guilty, it was only one short of convicting Johnson.
The history of presidential impeachment highlights the confusion around what constitutes grounds for impeachment. According to the Constitution, “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” are justification for impeachment, but this is quite vague. In both the Johnson and Clinton trials, the question was whether their actions constituted a high crime or a low one, which is largely up to what members of Congress think at the time of the transgression.
Given this broad definition, another president would likely have been removed from office had he been impeached. Richard Nixon faced three articles of impeachment due to the Watergate scandal. The charges centered around obstruction of justice and covering up crimes. Because it was likely that he would be removed from office, Nixon opted to resign before the House could impeach him.