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The Process for Impeaching a US President

An online petition calling for the impeachment of President Trump has already collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, but what does it really take for a US president to be impeached? It’s a relatively complicated process involving both the House and the Senate.

What is an impeachable offense?

“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.”

Article II, Section 4 of the United States Constitution says that the president can be “removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Exactly how these offenses are defined can be a little murky. There is a definition for treason in Article 3, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution, but there is no constitutional definition for bribery. High crimes and misdemeanors can refer to any number of felonies. Presidents and other officials cannot break the law without consequence. It can also refer to abuses of power or violation of public trust. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton defined impeachable offenses as “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Some things are without question impeachable offenses, like accepting bribes or committing a felony. For other things, though, it really depends on whether the House believes they are impeachable offenses. Gerald Ford summed it up in 1970 by saying that an impeachable offense is “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

In the case of President Trump, some are questioning whether his business conflicts of interests could be impeachable offenses. If there is evidence that he is taking bribes via his business or is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, that could be impeachable, but it might be difficult to prove. Ultimately, the only thing that would matter is whether the majority of the House believed it to be an impeachable offense.

Who decides?

The first step is for the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether there are grounds to begin impeachment proceedings. If they decide there are grounds, the chairman of the committee will propose a resolution calling for a formal inquiry. If the formal inquiry is in agreement that there are grounds for impeachment, another resolution will be drafted and sent to the full House of Representatives. This resolution will state whether or not impeachment is warranted and if it is, will list the Articles of Impeachment. This is just a formal statement of why impeachment is specifically warranted. The House then debates the Articles of Impeachment and votes.

If the House votes to impeach, the process then moves over to the Senate. The Senate then holds a trial. Members of the House serve as prosecutors and the President is represented by lawyers. The judge is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The senators serve as the jury. After the case has been presented, the “jury” meets in private to debate. They then vote in an open session. A conviction requires two-thirds of the vote. A conviction leads to the President’s removal from office.

How many US presidents have been impeached?

Zero. A US president has never been successfully impeached, and only four presidents have ever been a part of impeachment proceedings. Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House but was acquitted (by one vote!) in the Senate. John Tyler had a resolution brought by the House, but it failed. Richard Nixon’s impeachment was being debated in Congress when he resigned. Bill Clinton was impeached by the House but was acquitted by the Senate.

Although no US presidents have ever been successfully impeached to the point of being removed from office, seven federal judges have been. Some of the offenses that led to these impeachments were intoxication, tax evasion, and perjury.

What happens if the President is impeached?

If the House were to impeach and the Senate were to convict, the President would be removed from office and the Vice President would immediately be sworn in.