What exactly is impeachment?

You’ve seen it on the news or heard about it on social media. The U.S. House of Representatives is going to move forward with formal impeachment inquiries. If you’re under the age of 20, you have no memory of the last time the country went through a presidential impeachment and if you’re over 20, you may still be a little fuzzy on it.

What is impeachment?: Impeachment is in its simplest form a charge of misconduct against an elected official. In this case it would be the House of Representatives charging the President with misconduct.

Does impeachment mean removal from office?: Despite the fact that two attempts at presidential impeachment have been made since 1974, the public by and large seems to think that impeachment is synonymous with removal from office.

It isn’t. The House of Representatives presents and votes on articles of impeachment, and at that point, a president is technically impeached. However, the U.S. Senate is the only body that can bring the impeachment to trial. In the case of Bill Clinton, the senate found him not guilty, so while Clinton was impeached by the House he was not removed from office.

If the Senate finds the impeached guilty, he is automatically removed from office. The Senate is also capable of preventing the impeached from holding political office in the future. Right now, the democrats control the House and the republicans control the Senate. It is not likely that Donald Trump will be removed from office, unless his own party votes against him in an impeachment trial.

In fact, impeachment has never actually led to a president being removed from office: Just to drive home the point that impeachment doesn’t lead to removal from office, bear in mind that two U.S. presidents have actually been impeached in the House of Representatives, but neither was found guilty by the Senate, and both remained president. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both impeached by the House, but acquitted by the Senate.

Neither ever faced criminal charges. Impeachment is a very rare event in American history, and removal a president through impeachment is — at this point — unheard of.

But it was really close: Andrew Johnson escaped removal from office by the hair of his chinny chin chin. Johnson was impeached in the house following a violation of the Tenure of Office Act. He was acquitted in the Senate by just one vote. Interestingly enough, the law for which Johnson was impeached was later found to be unconstitutional.

Contrary to popular belief, Richard Nixon wasn’t even impeached: It’s a common misconception that Richard Nixon was impeached. He wasn’t. While articles of impeachment were filed on him and the House Judiciary Committee passed the articles of impeachment, Nixon resigned before his impeachment could be brought before the full House for a vote. Say what you will about Watergate, the cover-up, Nixon’s paranoia and the man himself, but you can’t say he was impeached. He spared himself — and the country — from that.

Impeachment is a political act, not a criminal trial: Impeachment only deals with the political consequences of a president’s actions. While a president can be impeached for criminal activity, the impeachment itself does not have any criminal consequences. That would come later. An impeached president would not go from the White House directly to the Federal Penitentiary. The highest consequence of impeachment is removal from office.

Couldn’t Mike Pence just pardon Trump if he were removed from office and put him back in office?: If the president were to be impeached, the vice-president would become president. The new president’s powers, however, don’t include pardoning the previous office-holder from their impeachment.

In other words, the vice-president can’t undo the impeachment and put the impeached president back in office. He can pardon the president of any criminal charges that are brought as a result of the impeachment, but the Senate’s verdict on impeachment is final.

You can commit a crime that isn’t an impeachable offense: Impeachment isn’t about crime. The founding fathers were more concerned about securing a method to remove a president who may pose a threat to democracy than they were about having a criminal in the White House.

The Constitution specifically spells out treason and bribery and then gives us the more vague “other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The framers of the Constitution intentionally didn’t spell out every impeachable offense, but they indicated that only the highest forms of crime could lead to impeachment.

Think of it as a trial: If an impeachment trial were held in a courtroom instead of the halls of Congress, The House of Representatives would look a lot like the prosecution. They make the case against the president and determine if they have enough evidence to bring it to trial.

Their vote on that, is the equivalent of a prosecutor deciding to bring charges against a defendant. The Senate acts as judge and jury. Representatives from the House come to the Senate to prosecute the case, and the actual trial is conducted in the Senate.

It isn’t open court though: While the votes and hearings on impeachment are public, the deliberation, like the deliberation of a jury, is private. After the trial phase, the Senate goes into closed-door meetings to determine the verdict. The proceedings return to the public view once it is time to cast a vote.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over an impeachment trial: Remember, the Vice President is also president of the Senate. It would be a conflict of interest for him to preside over impeachment hearings for his boss, so the Constitution provides a check and balance to that.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over presidential impeachment hearings in the Senate. In an ironic twist, the Constitution doesn’t spell out who presides over a vice-presidential impeachment. If you take the Constitution completely literally, the veep could preside over his own impeachment.

Political affiliation matters: The House of Representatives has never brought impeachment articles against a president of the same party.


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