U.S. President Donald Trump calls it the “I-word”. It has lawmakers in Washington in a quandry. So what is impeachment and how does it work?
Almost since Donald Trump took office in early 2017 and started tearing up the U.S. presidential play book, his political opponents have grappled with a critical question: Should lawmakers try to throw him out of office by impeaching him?
Impeachment is inherently political — the process is entrusted to the elected representatives of Congress — and we’ll be hearing a lot more about it as the 2020 presidential election approaches.
But what is impeachment? And how does it work?
Q: Just what is impeachment?
Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, impeachment allows Congress to remove presidents or other top officials from office before their term is over.
Here’s the exact section in the Constitution, Article II, Section 4: “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.”
Through impeachment, Congress can remove an official from office and can rule that the impeached official may never again hold public office. But Congress has no authority to impose jail time or fines for crimes committed while in office. That’s up to the courts.
Q: So how does it work?
Both chambers of Congress — the lower house, or House of Representatives, and the upper house, or Senate — have roles to play.
First, an article or articles of impeachment must be brought forward in the House of Representatives, which has 435 members who represent separate districts that are allocated to each of the 50 states on the basis of population.
Generally, the House Judiciary Committee considers the matter first and votes on articles of impeachment before they can be sent to the whole House.
If articles of impeachment are put before the House, lawmakers vote whether or not to approve them. The House can consider the resolution as a whole or vote on each article of impeachment individually. A simple majority of those present and voting is required for each article if the resolution as a whole is to pass.
If the House votes in favor of impeachment, it has effectively indicted the office holder, or approved a criminal accusation.
The case then moves to the 100-member Senate, which convenes a trial. Representatives, called “managers,” are named from the House to manage the prosecution. The impeached official has the right to mount a defense with their own attorneys. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the Senate during the trial.
If at least two-thirds of the senators find a president guilty, they are removed from office, and the vice president assumes the presidency.
Q: It sounds like a big deal. Does this happen often?
Even though impeachment has been in the news almost since Trump took office, it is actually not very common to impeach a president.
Only two presidents have been impeached by the House. Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 were impeached by the House but then acquitted by the Senate, so they stayed in office.
In 1974, Richard Nixon faced the almost certain prospect of being impeached by Congress, but he resigned before the House could vote on articles that stemmed from his actions in the Watergate scandal.
The House has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times against other office holders, but fewer than one third have led to full impeachments. Only eight individuals — all federal judges — have been convicted and removed from office by the Senate.
This chart on the U.S. House of Representatives’ website gives a sense of some of the charges impeached officials have faced. They range from being drunk on the bench to waging war against the U.S. government, to tax evasion and working as a judge after being convicted.
Q: Just what did Johnson, Nixon and Clinton do?
Andrew Johnson, who replaced Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, was impeached by the House for removing the Secretary of War from his cabinet without Congress’s approval. At the time, that wasn’t allowed under the Tenure of Office Act.
The Senate acquitted him, falling one vote short of the two-thirds needed to convict him. Several decades later, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tenure of Office Act was invalid.
The House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment accusing Nixon of violating his oath of office for a cover-up related to the Watergate scandal.
Among other things, he was accused of making false statements to investigators, withholding information, counseling witnesses to give false information and authorizing the payment of money to people so they would not testify. Nixon resigned before the House took up the matter.
The House impeached Clinton for lying under oath to a federal grand jury and for obstructing justice in relation to an investigation into an affair he had with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. His impeachment followed an investigation by an independent counsel.
Only 50 senators voted to remove Clinton on the obstruction of justice charge and 45 on the perjury charge, falling short of the 67 senators needed to find him guilty. As a result he was acquitted on both charges.
Q: So will Trump get impeached?
It’s all wrapped up in politics.
The House of Representatives is controlled by the Democrats, but just barely. The leader of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, has said that at this point she does not want to start impeachment proceedings, in part because it could backfire politically.
The Senate, which would hold the trial if the House did impeach Trump, is controlled by members of the president’s Republican Party. So unless there was an iron-clad case against Trump, it is unlikely two-thirds of the senators would vote to impeach him — a reality that is not lost on Pelosi.
Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires. She currently works as the News Editor at Devex, a media platform for the global development community.