For the past few weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives has been conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
As we move closer to seeing the results of the inquiry, it is important to understand how impeachment works and how Congress has used it in the past. Read our earlier article HERE on why a political leader might be impeached in the U.S.
A Political Trial
Congress can impeach anyone who holds a position in the federal government. Article I of the Constitution gives the House of Representatives “the sole power of impeachment” but does not establish any specific procedures for it to follow.
Traditionally, the House Judiciary Committee starts the process by drafting one or more “articles of impeachment” (documents accusing an official of specific crimes). If the full House passes an article by a majority vote, it has formally impeached the official on the offense it describes.
But “impeachment” refers only to the passage of charges by the House, not the actual removal of a person from office. For that stage of the process, we head to the upper house of Congress - the U.S. Senate, which the Constitution requires to “try all impeachments”.
When the Senate receives the impeachment articles, it holds an “impeachment trial” to decide whether or not the official is guilty of the crimes. The procedures are similar to what happens in a normal criminal trial. Senators act as the jury; after hearing evidence from both sides, they decide whether or not the official is guilty. Unlike the House, which passes the articles by a simple majority, the Senate needs a two-thirds majority to pass a guilty verdict.
If the Senate votes “guilty” on even a single article, it immediately removes the official from office; if it votes “not guilty” on all of them, the official is acquitted of the charges.
The Impeached Presidents
Since the Constitution first gave Congress the power of impeachment, it has impeached 19 officials and removed eight of them (most recently in 2010). Two of the people who underwent an impeachment trial were U.S presidents.
Democrat Andrew Johnson, who was president from 1865 to 1869, constantly clashed with a Republican-controlled Congress, particularly over his right to dismiss officials he appointed. In 1868, after Johnson fired a cabinet secretary without consulting Congress, the House impeached him on 11 articles. The Senate eventually acquitted him, but very narrowly - one article fell just one vote short of a two-thirds majority.
In 1998, Democratic president Bill Clinton attempted to cover up an inappropriate relationship he had with an intern at the White House. Since he had lied about the affair, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached him for perjury (lying under oath) and obstruction of justice. Democrats, however, thought that the Republicans were only impeaching Clinton for political purposes. The Senate, which had only a slight Republican majority, did not convict Clinton on either article.
Will Trump become the third president to be impeached, or even the first to be removed? The answer to this question will depend on the results of the inquiry and whether Congress decides to use its controversial but important power of impeachment.
Sources: NYTimes, VOX, History, Heritage.org, Senate.gov