Impeachment Explainer


What Is Impeachment?
The US Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to formally charge a federal official who is suspected of committing a crime or abuse of power, using a process called impeachment. If the House approves the articles of impeachment (the charges of wrongdoing) in a majority vote, the official goes to trial in the Senate, which has the sole power to try all impeachments. [1] If an official is convicted by two-thirds of the senators present for the trial, the official will be removed from office. All federal government officials, including the president and vice president, are subject to impeachment. [2]

The subject of impeachment received attention in Sep. 2019 when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. [6]

No US president has had to leave the White House due to impeachment. [3] Presidents Bill Clinton (in 1998) and Andrew Johnson (in 1868) were impeached by the House of Representatives, but were acquitted by the Senate. [3][4][5] Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 rather than face impeachment. [4][5]
President Richard Nixon leaving the White House after his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.
Source: Andrew Cohen, "Why This Is Not Trump’s Watergate,” nybooks.com, Oct. 31, 2017
When Can a Federal Official Be Impeached?
According to Article II, Section 4 of the US 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.” [7]
Alexander Hamilton explained the grounds for impeachment in the Federalist Papers in 1788
Source: John Trumbull, "Alexander Hamilton Portrait by John Trumbull 1806,” wikipedia.org (accessed Nov. 7, 2019)
Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers No. 65 on Mar. 7, 1788 that the grounds for impeachment "are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust, adding that impeachment was "designed as a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men.” [4][8][9]

Charlie Savage, MSL, Washington Correspondent for the New York Times, explained, "The term ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ came out of the British common law tradition: it was the sort of offense that Parliament cited in removing crown officials for centuries. Essentially, it means an abuse of power by a high-level public official. This does not necessarily have to be a violation of an ordinary criminal statute.” [4]
What Happens in the US House of Representatives?
According to Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution, impeachment can only be initiated in the US House of Representatives. The term "impeachment” refers to formal charges being filed (like an indictment). The person being charged does not have to leave office after being impeached by the House; instead, they will go to trial in the Senate. [3][5][10]
President Bill Clinton speaks to Democratic lawmakers after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him on Dec. 19, 1998
Source: Steve Kornacki, "Clinton Kept His Party with Him to Stop Impeachment. Trump’s Approach Is Different,” nbcnews.com, Oct. 5, 2019
The process in the House can vary. It may begin with the House Judiciary Committee investigating and recommending articles of impeachment, which are formal written allegations of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Committee believes warrant a trial. [4][5][10] The House could form a special panel to investigate or skip the committee step altogether.

According to Stephen Vladeck, JD, Law Professor at the University of Texas, "the Constitution actually says nothing about the process the House is supposed to follow when it comes to impeachment inquiries, other than that it eventually has to approve articles of impeachment before sending the matter to the Senate." [11]

Regardless of which path is taken, the result is the articles of impeachment. The full House then votes on the articles of impeachment. [4][5] To see some examples, read the articles of impeachment against Clinton, Nixon, and Johnson.

If at least one article gets a majority vote in the House, the federal official has been impeached. [4]
What Happens in the Senate?
After the House adopts the articles of impeachment, the process moves to the Senate. [4] The Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases at trial, according to Article I, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7 of the Constitution. [7]

In the Senate, a trial is held with the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, currently Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding as the judge. US Representatives from the House act as prosecutors, called "managers.” The impeached official may choose their own defense counsel. [4][5][9][10]
Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, illustrated by Theodore R. Davis for Harper’s Weekly in Apr. 1868
Theodore R. Davis, "Illustration of Johnson's Impeachment Trial in the United States Senate, by Theodore R. Davis, Published in Harper's Weekly," wikipedia.org (accessed Nov. 7, 2019)
No set rules for the Senate trial exist. Instead, a resolution is passed in the Senate laying out trial procedure before the trial begins. [4]

If the official is not convicted, they remain impeached but are considered acquitted and not removed from office. [4]

If two-thirds of the Senate, acting as the jury, find the official guilty of the articles of impeachment, the official is removed from office without possibility of appeal. In the case of a US president being convicted, the vice president would become president. [3][4][5][10]The Senate could then disqualify the impeached president from ever holding public office again with a simple majority vote. [3]
Who Has Been Impeached?
The House of Representatives has impeached 19 people since 1797, including one senator, one associate justice of the US Supreme Court, 14 federal judges, one Secretary of War, and Presidents Clinton and Johnson. [3][12]

Eight of those 19 were removed from office following a Senate trial, seven were acquitted, three resigned before or during the trial, and in one case the charges were dismissed. [12] The most recent impeachment occurred in 2010 when US District Court Judge G. Thomas Porteous, Jr. was impeached and removed from office for accepting bribes and making false statements under penalty of perjury. [12]
Individual &
Title
House Impeachment Date &
Charges
Senate Trial Dates &
Outcome of Senate Trial
1. William Blount
US Senator (TN)
July 7, 1797
Conspiring to assist in Great Britain's attempt to seize Spanish-controlled territories in modern-day Florida and Louisiana
Dec. 17, 1798 - Jan. 14, 1799
Charges dismissed for want of jurisdiction
Blount was expelled from the Senate before trail
2. John Pickering
US District Court Judge, New Hampshire
Mar. 2, 1803
Intoxication on the bench and unlawful handling of property claims
Mar. 3, 1803 - Mar. 12, 1804
Found guilty and removed from office
3. Samuel Chase
US Supreme Court Associate Justice
Impeached: Mar. 12, 1804
Charges: arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials
Dec. 7, 1804 - Mar. 1, 1804
Acquitted
4. James H. Peck
US District Court Judge, Western District of Tennessee
Apr. 24, 1830
Abuse of the contempt of power
Apr. 26, 1830 - Jan. 31, 1831
Acquitted
5. West H. Humphreys
US District Court Judge, Western District of Tennessee
May 6, 1862
Refusing to hold court and waging war against the US government
June 9-26 1862
Found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from holding future office
6. Andrew Johnson
17th President of the US
Feb. 24, 1868
Violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office
Feb. 25 - May 26, 1868
Acquitted
7. Mark H. Delahay
US District Court Judge, Kansas
Feb. 28, 1873
Intoxicated on the bench
No trial held
Resigned prior to trial
8. William W. Belknap
US Secretary of War
Mar. 2, 1876
Criminal disregard for his office and accepting payments in exchange for making official appointments
Mar. 3, - Aug. 1, 1876
Acquitted
9. Charles Swayne
US District Court Judge, Northern District of Florida
Dec. 13, 1904
Abuse of contempt power and other misuses of office
Dec. 14, 1904 - Feb. 27, 1905
Acquitted
10. Robert W. Archibald
US Commerce Court Associate Judge
July 11, 1912
Improper business relationships with litigants
July 13, 1912 - Jan. 13, 1913
Found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from holding future office
11. George W. English
US District Court Judge, Eastern District of Illinois
Apr. 26,1926
Abuse of power
Apr. 23 - Dec. 13, 1926
Resigned on Nov. 4, 1926 and the trial was dismissed on Dec. 13, 1926
12. Harold Louderback
US District Court Judge, Northern District of California
Feb. 24, 1933
Favoritism in the appointment of bankruptcy receivers
May 15-24, 1933
Acquitted
13. Halsted L. Ritter
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Florida
Mar. 2, 1936
Favoritism in the appointment of bankruptcy receivers and practicing law as a sitting judge
Mar. 10 - Apr. 17, 1936
Found guilty and removed from office
14. Harry E. Claiborne
US District Court Judge, Nevada
July 22, 1986
Income tax evasion and remaining on the bench following a criminal conviction
Oct. 7-9, 1986
Found guilty and removed from office
15. Alcee L. Hastings
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Florida
Aug. 3, 1988
Perjury and conspiring to solicit a bribe
Oct. 18-20, 1989
Found guilty and removed from office
16. Walter L. Nixon
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Mississippi
May 10, 1989
Perjury before a federal grand jury
Nov. 1-3, 1989
Found guilty and removed from office
17. William J. Clinton
42nd President of the United States
Dec. 19, 1998
Lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice
Jan. 7 - Feb. 12, 1999
Acquitted
18. Samuel B. Kent
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Texas
June 19, 2009
Sexual assault, obstructing and impeding an official proceeding, and making false and misleading statements
June 24 - July 22, 2009
Resigned before completion of trial
19. G. Thomas Porteous, Jr.
US District Court Judge, Eastern District of Louisiana
Mar. 11, 2010
Accepting bribes and making false statements under penalty of perjury
Dec. 7-8, 2010
Found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from holding future office
Source: US State House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, "List of Individuals Impeached by the House of Representatives,” history.house.gov (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)
Discussion Questions - Things to Think About
1. Should the US House of Representatives and US Senate have a set protocol for impeaching a federal official? What sort of protocols? Why or why not?

2. Should federal officials who have been impeached be allowed to hold public office? Why or why not? What if they were acquitted in the Senate?

3. In what ways does an impeachment differ from a criminal trial? Explain your answers.

4. What are some examples of crimes or actions for which you think a federal official should be impeached?

5. Do you think the impeachment process is set up in a way that protects the best interests of the American public? Why or why not?


Footnotes:

  1. US House of Representatives History, Art, & Archives, "Impeachment,” history.house.gov (accessed Nov. 7, 2019)

  2. US Senate, "Impeachment,” senate.gov (accessed Nov. 7, 2019)

  3. Pete Williams, "What Is Impeachment and How Does It Work?,” nbcnews.com, Sep. 25, 2019

  4. Charlie Savage, "How the Impeachment Process Works,” nytimes.com, Sep. 24, 2019

  5. Brian Pascus, "Pelosi Launches Impeachment Inquiry into Trump: What Is It and What Happens Next?,” cbsnews.com, Sep. 24, 2019

  6. Nicholas Fandos, "Nancy Pelosi Announces Formal Impeachment Inquiry of Trump,” nytimes,com, Oct. 4, 2019

  7. Legal Information Institute, "U.S. Constitution,” law.cornell.edu (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)

  8. lexander Hamilton, "The Federalist Papers: No. 65,” avalon.law.yale.edu, Mar. 7, 1788 (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)

  9. Nicole Goodkind, "Impeachment Explained: Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and What Happens Next,” newsweek.com, Sep. 25, 2019

  10. Andrew O’Reilly, "The Impeachment Inquiry: How Does Removing a President Work?,” foxnews.com, Sep. 24, 2019

  11. Brian Naylor, "Who Sets the Rules? When Is It Real? And Other Big Questions on Impeachment,” npr.org, Oct. 9, 2019

  12. US State House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, "List of Individuals Impeached by the House of Representatives,” history.house.gov (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)