Impeachment 101

By T. J. Barker

With the Washington Post reporting that Trump is under investigation for potential attempts to obstruct justice, a lot of people are wondering about impeachment. What does it mean? How would it happen? Will it happen? In this piece, we will answer those questions.


WHAT IS IMPEACHMENT?

Impeachment is the means by which specific government officials can be removed from office for misconduct.

Removal from office is a two-step process. First, the House of Representatives must vote to impeach. If the House does successfully vote to impeach, then the official must be convicted by the Senate.

It is possible for an official to be impeached by the House but not removed from office, if the House does vote to impeach but the Senate does not convict.  


FROM THE CONSTITUTION

“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


WHAT ARE GROUNDS FOR IMPEACHMENT?

The Constitution states that “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” are grounds for impeachment. However, legal scholars disagree what constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Many legal scholars believe that grounds for impeachment include only serious criminal actions that indicate a dereliction of duty. These would include only treason, bribery, and other criminal abuses of power.

However, other scholars have argued that any misdemeanor or misdeed would qualify an official for impeachment.

Although this is an issue where clarity would be highly preferable, the definition of the phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” remains open to interpretation.


HOW DOES IMPEACHMENT START?

The House of Representatives brings charges against the official who is to be impeached. A majority vote of the House is all that is required to bring impeachment charges.


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The Senate holds a trial to determine if the official is convicted of the charges. A two-thirds vote of the Senate is required to convict and remove the officer. This means 67 out of 100 senators must vote to convict for an official to be removed from office.


WHEN HAS IMPEACHMENT BEEN USED?

A number of impeachment proceedings have been used against judges in the lower federal courts. Impeachment proceedings have been brought against two Presidents, Andrew Johnson (in 1867) and Bill Clinton (in 1999). In both cases, the Senate did not vote to convict, so the president remained in office.

Richard Nixon (in 1974) was nearly impeached, but he resigned while the House was preparing impeachment charges for concealing evidence related to the Watergate break-in.


CONSIDERATIONS REGARDING THE POSSIBLE IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT TRUMP

  • The House of Representatives has to bring impeachment charges, and the House has to pass these charges by a majority vote.  If voting occurs along party lines, impeachment charges would not be passed in today’s majority-GOP House.

  • If the House passed impeachment charges, the Senate would have to vote a two-thirds majority to convict and remove from office.  If voting occurs along party lines, a conviction would not occur in today’s majority-GOP Senate.

  • In 2018, the country will have its midterm elections. During midterms, all House representatives and one-third of senators are up for re-election.

If enough seats are won by the Democrats, the majority in House and Senate could shift from Republicans to Democrats. However, it will not be possible for Democrats to reach the 67 votes necessary for conviction in the Senate without some Republican senators voting to convict.

  • Right now, Democrats in Congress do not agree on impeachment. At this time, only around twenty Democratic representatives and three Democratic senators have called for impeachment. Other Democrats may be waiting to see if Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation produces evidence of wrongdoing.
     

DEMOCRATS' STANCE

From a New York Times Op-Ed article by Thomas B. Edsall (May 25, 2017):

“Although Democrats are by no means unified on the issue, much of the activist base of the Democratic Party smells blood. At least 23 House Democrats and three Senators have signaled that they are receptive to impeachment, most prominently Representatives Al Green of Texas and Maxine Waters of California, who have called for the start of formal proceedings. . . .

“So far, these arguments have not been persuasive to top Democrats in the House and Senate. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, told reporters at her regular press briefing last week:

‘I hope some would curb their enthusiasm until we have all of the facts and have confidence that when the American people understand what is there, whether it’s grounds for impeachment or grounds for disappointment, then they’ll know.’”
 

ADDITIONAL READING

“To Impeach or Not to Impeach,” Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, May 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/25/opinion/donald-trump-impeachment.html?_r=0

“Standards for Impeachment” by Stephen B. Presser, Sullivan & Cromwell Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/2/essays/100/standards-for-impeachment

“Impeachment Clauses,” University of Chicago, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/tocs/a1_2_5.html