As drama swirls around President Donald Trump in Washington, White House lawyers are said to be researching impeachment. But is it likely to happen?
The fact is that it's easier to think and talk about impeaching a president than to actually impeach one. But it is definitely a good moment to review how the impeachment process works, just in case. Read on for all of the information you need to understand impeachment, what it is and where it takes place.
Impeachment May Not Be What You Think
Presidents can be impeached, but they are not the only ones. Under the U.S. Constitution, impeachment proceedings can also be brought against any "civil officer" – a federal official appointed by the president – who is accused of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” But the impeachment proceedings that catch the interest of the public are those against American presidents.
People use the term impeachment to mean removal from office, but that's not accurate. Think of impeachment as a criminal indictment. Impeachment occurs when the president is officially accused of wrongdoing, not when he is found guilty.
Impeachment Starts in the House of Representatives
The process of presidential impeachment begins in the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary. The Department of Justice (DOJ), or some independent body, investigates the president. If investigators determine that the president committed a crime, they present evidence to the Judiciary Committee.
Alternatively, a member of the House of Representatives or a state can ask for an impeachment investigation. The resolution to authorize an investigation goes to the House Committee on Rules for debate. If that committee finds evidence of wrongdoing, the matter is usually sent to the Judiciary Committee.
Judiciary Committee members weigh the evidence and decide whether they are persuaded that the offense was committed. If so, they draft articles of impeachment. The House is not bound by the Committee decision. Even if the Judiciary Committee does not recommend impeachment, the full House can vote for impeachment.
The entire House of Representatives discusses and debates the merits of the articles of impeachment before the matter goes to a vote of the House. If a simple majority (51 percent) of the representatives vote for the articles of impeachment, the president is impeached. This does not mean he is removed from office.
Impeachment Process Moves to the Senate
If the House of Representatives impeaches the president, the matter moves to the U.S. Senate. That body is charged with determining whether to remove the president from office.
Impeachment action in the Senate proceeds like a trial. The Senate issues a summons, ordering the president to appear and enter a plea. His attorneys can appear for him, or he can simply not show up at all. That is interpreted by the Senate as a not-guilty plea nonetheless.
The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives acts as prosecutors, presenting the evidence to either the full Senate or a group of senators selected to hear the matter. The prosecutors make the case that the president should be removed from office. The president chooses his own attorneys who organize and present his defense.
The chief justice of the United States sits as the impeachment trial judge. He determines whether the evidence each sides wants to present is admissible.
Ultimately, the impeachment case goes to the full Senate that sits as the jury in the case. As is the case with a regular jury, the vote is taken in closed session. While only a simple majority is required in the House to impeach the president, it takes a 2/3 majority in the Senate to remove a president from office. If that happens, the vice president steps into the president's shoes to lead the nation.
You may think that there are clear and precise procedures set out for impeachment, but that is not the case. The general outlines, described above, are implemented with rules and trial procedures that the Senate develops by resolution. The rules can make it harder or easier to prove the case.
Past Presidential Impeachments
Only two U.S. presidents have been impeached in the history of the country. It's a common misconception that Richard Nixon was one of them. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in 1974 following a break-in at the Democratic Party's headquarters in Washington, known as the Watergate scandal.
The first president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson, in 1868. In that era, it was against the law for a president to remove any member of his cabinet that had been confirmed by the Senate. Johnson was accused of violating this law, three days after he fired his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. The House voted for impeachment but the Senate did not have the 2/3 majority required to remove Johnson from office. It was a single vote shy of that majority.
Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, was the only other president to be impeached. He was impeached by the Republican controlled House of Representatives in 1998. They charged him with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading a grand jury about an extramarital affair he had while he was in the White House. After a trial, the Senate acquitted Clinton of both charges.