Impeachment is a constitutional process under which an elected official, including the president, is charged with an offense or offenses warranting removal from office. To impeach is a term meaning to charge or to accuse, and articles of impeachment are, in effect, an indictment.
Unlike other elected officials, who can be charged with crimes and removed from office if convicted in a court, a president cannot be charged with a criminal offense under current Department of Justice guidelines, something Democrats have argued should be changed through legislation.
Impeachment and its potential repercussions are described in Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. 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.”
Generally, legal scholars say, high crimes and misdemeanors can be anything that the House determines rises to the level of abuse of office or violation of public trust. In 1970, then-congressman and future president, Gerald Ford, said: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."
House vote: The power to impeach rests with the House of Representatives under Article I, Section 2, Clause 5. There is no defined procedure for impeachment, and it requires only a majority vote by the House. Any action preceding an impeachment vote, such as investigatory hearings, are up to the House to define and pursue. In recent times, that responsibility has fallen to the House Judiciary Committee after the House passed a resolution authorizing the panel to begin an investigation.
Senate trial: If the House votes to impeach a president, it is then up to the Senate to try the case.
The Constitution spells outs two specific requirements in trying an impeached president:
- The Chief Justice of the United States should preside instead of the vice president.
- A vote of two-thirds of the senators “present” is needed to convict.
The Senate, over the years, has developed its own rules for handling impeachments, including the appointment of a small number of senators to operate as a trial committee to gather evidence and take testimony.
The penalty: The only penalty of conviction is removal from office “and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”
The removed official, however, still can also be charged and tried in a court of law.
Past impeachment outcomes: Since the Constitution was ratified in 1790, the House has impeached 19 federal officials, including two presidents: Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998).
Both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted. Of the other officials, eight (all judges) were convicted, and seven were acquitted. Four did not go to trial: Three resigned and one was removed from office after impeachment.
Richard Nixon resigned as president in August 1974, after the House Judiciary Committee drew up three articles of impeachment but before the full House could vote on them.