In the US, impeachment means that Congress thinks the president is no longer fit to serve and should be removed from office. Here’s what you need to know about what it is and how it works.
What is impeachment?
The term “impeachment” itself dates back centuries in England, where it was “a device for prosecuting great lords and high officials who were beyond the reach of the law courts”.
But in the US context, the framers of the Constitution set up the impeachment process as a way for Congress to remove the president from power.
First, the House of Representatives has the power to impeach the president. A simple majority is necessary for an article of impeachment to be approved. (Each article lays out a charge against the president.)
Then the process moves to the Senate, where a trial will be held with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding.
Finally, and crucially, it takes a two-thirds vote from the Senate to actually convict a president on any count. Conviction on any count would then remove the president from office and put the vice-president in power.
Note that two-thirds of the Senate – 67 votes – is a very high threshold that is almost never achieved.
What can the president actually be impeached for?
The Constitution specifies two specific crimes – treason and bribery – that could merit impeachment and removal from office. In addition to that, it mentions a vaguer, broader category of “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”.
That’s all we get, and just what that last category entails has been the subject of a great deal of debate throughout US history. When Gerald Ford was House minority leader, he said, “An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
How often has impeachment happened in history?
The only two American presidents ever to have been impeached were Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999. Neither was actually convicted and removed from office. However, Richard Nixon was headed towards seemingly certain impeachment and likely conviction in 1974, and preemptively resigned his office. No other president has come particularly close to being impeached.
How does impeachment actually play out in the House?
Impeachment happens in the House of Representatives and, since the House is run on majority rules, it’s really up the majority party to run the process as it sees fit.
How does an impeachment trial play out in the Senate?
Though the actual action of impeachment in the House looks a lot like votes on any ordinary bill or resolution, the Senate is where things start to look quite different because the Senate is hosting a trial – something it very rarely does.
In this trial, the House of Representatives acts as a prosecutor, designating certain impeachment managers to argue their side in the Senate. The president’s lawyers are the defence team – the president does not have to appear in person and, historically, has not done so. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides and is responsible for making procedural rulings during the trial. However, the Senate can vote to overrule his or her decisions.
What does this mean for Trump?
Crucially, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton – the presidents who were either impeached or who, in Nixon’s case, resigned to avoid impeachment – all faced Congresses in which both chambers were controlled by their political enemies and who, therefore, wanted them out of power.
Trump, of course, does not. And so long as Republicans control the Senate, it’s difficult to imagine any removal of Trump. The president is still quite popular among Republican voters, and party interests still need him to appoint conservative judges and sign conservative bills. So, Republicans in Congress have a strong incentive to give him the benefit of the doubt on any scandal or controversy in which he has some sort of plausible deniability – and even some where he may not.
- Will Donald Trump be impeached?
- As a class, read at least the first two pages of Trump’s letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in “Expert Links”. (Warning: includes some swearing!) In it, Trump declares that “one hundred years from now”, he wants people “to understand it and learn from it”. Write a summary of the trial of 45th US president, the charges and his defence, as history might remember it. Did Pelosi bring him down successfully? Was Trump right to compare his impeachment to a witch trial? Write at least half a page.
- To carry out legal action against someone or an organisation.
- The list of fundamental aims and values forming the basis of how the country in run. In the US, it is the source of all government powers.
- The US government is made up of the executive, the judicial and the legislative branch. The executive is led by the president and the vice-president and enforces US laws. The judicial is led by the Supreme Court and interprets the laws; the legislative is Congress (made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives) that makes the laws.
- House of Representatives
- The lower house in US Congress, which has 435 members. The majority of these members are currently Democrats.
- The upper house, which has 100 members. The majority of these are Republicans.
- A crime of betraying one’s country.
- Giving or receiving something of value in exchange for influence or action.
- US spelling of misdemeanour. A crime of low seriousness that is usually punished with a payment of fine.
- Gerald Ford
- 38th US president (1974-1977).
- Andrew Johnson
- 17th US president (1865-1869).
- Bill Clinton
- 42nd US president (1993-2001).
- Richard Nixon
- 37th US president (1969-1974).
- In June 1972, in the run-up to the US election, there was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. The offices were phone tapped (calls were secretly recorded). It emerged that the five men responsible had been paid by Nixon’s re-election campaign team, and that he and his team then tried to cover up the incident. Impeachment proceedings had begun when Nixon resigned in 1974.
- Done in case of something happening or feared.
- Chief justice of the Supreme Court
- The chief judge of the Supreme Court of the US and the highest-ranking officer of the US legal system. A chief justice serves until they resign, retire, are impeached and convicted, or die. Currently, John Roberts (2005-present).