Impeachment is a rare topic in any year, but especially in an election year. A solemn business, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only two sitting presidents that have been impeached, but both served out their respective terms after acquittal by the Senate.
Richard Nixon also faced an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives but resigned before a decision was reached. In light of the current president facing articles of impeachment, here are some basic facts about how this process really works.
What’s an Impeachable Offense?
According to the Constitution of the United States, a trial must be held to determine the merit of charges brought against a president. Impeachable offenses include bribery, treason, high crimes and misdemeanors. The House of Representatives must have a viable reason to overturn the president, and the US House Committee on the Judiciary must hold a hearing on the impeachment resolution to proceed with a vote.
Let’s explore the steps in the impeachment process:
- The Speaker of the House institutes the official inquiry into the impeachment of the president.
- Six house committees start their own investigations into the accusations. These committees include;
- Committee on the Judiciary
- Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
- Committee on Foreign Affairs
- Committee on Oversight and Reform
- Committee on Financial Services, and
- Ways and Means Committee
- The House of Representatives takes a vote on how to conduct the impeachment inquiry.
- The House Intelligence Committee and then the Judiciary Committee hold public trial-like hearings.
- After the Judiciary Committee completes its initial investigation and publically debates the articles of impeachment, it votes whether to refer the articles onto the House.
- If referred by the Judiciary, the House of Representatives takes a vote on whether to proceed with impeachment.
- Should the impeachment move forward, it will be referred to the Senate for trial. The Senate will choose how the trial will proceed, including a time frame for completion.
- In the resulting trial, the chief justice of the Supreme Court acts as the presiding judge while the entire Senate performs as the jury. Members of the House of Representatives (called “managers” for the purposes of these proceedings) act as prosecutors in the case. Defense lawyers are retained by the president to oppose the prosecution.
- After hearing evidence and arguments, the Senate makes a final decision on impeachment and renders a verdict.
- If the president is acquitted, he remains in office. If he’s found guilty (and guilt must be determined by greater than two-thirds or more of the majority, or 67 or more senators), he is removed from office, and the vice president becomes president.
By design, it’s not a simple one-sided process to remove a sitting president from office. There are a series of investigations and steps to go through as well as numerous votes to tally before a final decision is made. The impeachment investigation of President Trump is a teaching tool for current and future politicians and marks a significant moment in history. Because of the rarity of impeachment proceedings, no matter the verdict, its impact will be felt for years to come.
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