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The Federal Impeachment Process Explained – Lesson

There’s a lot of confusion about impeachment.

A lot of people don’t really understand the process of impeachment. It is a simple legal process including a formal accusation of wrongdoing, followed by a trial. Impeachment can be brought against many public officials, but the most high-profile cases are those of U.S. presidents.

The Founding Fathers identified two specific actions – treason and bribery – they believed were serious enough to remove a duly elected president. The term “high crimes and misdemeanors” are also grounds to impeach, but the broad definition of these words brings a lot of confusion and controversy.

In a federal impeachment against an elected official, the U.S. House of Representatives brings the accusation. Then the U.S. Senate hears the trial against the accused person, with senators acting as a jury. A state impeachment is a bit different, as each state must follow its own constitution.

Either federal or state impeachment processes are designed to remove an official who has committed a crime. They were not designed to be used for political purposes, such as getting rid of political opponents.

The process is as follows:

  • The investigation usually begins in the House Judiciary Committee, which collects evidence and prepares the allegation.
  • The House then must vote on whether or not to pass articles of impeachment, which make up the formal accusation. When a simple majority votes to pass the articles, the defendant is impeached.
  • Finally, the articles of impeachment are sent to the U.S. Senate for trial. In the case of a presidential impeachment, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court presides.

The U.S. Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to agree in order to convict an impeached person. If the Senate convicts, the person impeached must then leave his or her office. With an acquittal, the person may remain in office.

Where many people get confused is they believe that impeached means “guilty,” and “removed from office.” That isn’t the case. Impeached means indicted, or formally accused. Only a conviction by the Senate is a guilty verdict.

Since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, only three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

The issue of impeachment is evolving. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid getting impeached, as impeachment is typically a method of removing an official from office. Decades later, the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump raised questions about whether a person who has already left office can be impeached. Since that trial occurred after Trump had left the White House, some thought it was illegal; in a vote, 45 senators said the trial would be unconstitutional, while 55 thought it would not. What does this mean for the future of impeachment?