On September 24, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump. But what does impeachment really involve? How does it possibly affect Donald Trump now and in the future? Here, Election Central takes a closer look at what exactly impeachment means when it has been used in the past, and what the next steps might look like for Congress and the Trump administration.
You may think that impeaching a president means removing him or her from office, but that’s not actually the case. It’s really just a statement of charges against an elected official. It doesn’t mean that the official is actually guilty of those charges, only that the process of investigating those charges has begun.
According to the Constitution, a president can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Treason and bribery are clearly defined: treason is betraying one’s country (especially by attempting to overthrow the government), and bribery means giving or receiving something of value in exchange for some kind of action in return. But the Constitution doesn’t define “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which leaves the term open to interpretation.
As a result, the U.S. Congress has identified three types of conduct that are considered grounds for impeachment: misusing an office for financial gain; abusing the power of the office; or acting in a manner considered incompatible with the office.
So what is the process that has been established to remove a president from office? It’s actually an extremely complicated series of actions. In fact, no president has ever been first impeachment and then removed from office. But several presidents have had impeachment proceedings brought before them. (Read below to learn more about that history.)
Here is the impeachment process in a nutshell:
Only a handful of presidents have ever been impeached in American history–or even come close–beginning with John Tyler in the 1840s. In Tyler’s case, a midterm election switched control of the House from one party to the other, and there weren’t enough votes to impeach. Tyler finished out his term and chose not to run for re-election.
In 1868, during the turbulent post-Civil War Reconstruction period, Andrew Johnson was impeached in the House for firing his secretary of war. In the Senate, Johnson fell short of conviction by just one vote.
In 1973, Richard Nixon was found to have been involved in a break-in and subsequent cover-up at the Democratic Party national headquarters. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly favored impeachment across party lines, but Nixon resigned before the impeachment process could be completed.
In 1998, Bill Clinton was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about an affair he had with a White House intern. A Republican-controlled House successfully voted to accept articles of impeachment against Clinton. The vote to convict fell far short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate, so Clinton finished out the remainder of his second term in the White House.
Dig Deeper No president has ever been removed from office after impeachment. But if this were to happen, who would take over as chief executive?