What is Impeachment?

On September 24, the United States House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she and her House colleagues would initiate a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald J. Trump. 

The inquiry comes in the wake of accusations that President Trump asked the Ukrainian government to find damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate, and former Vice President, Joe Biden, in exchange for aid from the United States.

While most Americans have likely heard the term before, it may not be immediately clear what “impeachment” actually means. Simply put, impeachment is a charge made against a public official. 

The process of impeaching an office holder in the United States is granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution. Article II section 4 of the Constitution states that the President, Vice President and all other Civil Officers of the U.S. government “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” 

Despite common misconception, impeachment, conviction, and removal from office are all separate pieces in a multi-step process. 

The process begins in the House of Representatives, where the Speaker of the House must approve the proceedings that will lead to the President being investigated by various House committees. At the end of the investigation, articles of impeachment may be drafted. 

If articles of impeachment are approved by the House Judiciary Committee, all members of the House will vote on whether or not to indict the President on the charges brought up in the articles. If a majority of House members vote that the President is guilty, the President is “impeached,” or indicted by the House. 

Once impeached, the process then moves on to the Senate, where a trial is held to determine whether the President will be removed from office. If two-thirds, or 67 U.S. Senators, vote that the President is guilty, he is convicted and removed from office by the Senate.        

While many Americans associate the term “impeachment” with the President, other officials can be impeached as well. Federal judges, a cabinet secretary and former Tennessee Senator William Blount join Presidents Andrew Johnson and William Clinton on the list of officials impeached, according to the U.S. House of Representatives historical records. 

However, despite being impeached, Presidents Johnson and Clinton were not removed from office. Both were acquitted by the Senate and remained in office for the remainder of their respective terms. 

Numerous other Presidents, including John Tyler, Herbert Hoover, and George W. Bush have had resolutions introduced calling for their impeachment. However, the majority of these resolutions were dropped before reaching the Judiciary Committee. 

The most famous and by far the most dramatic of these “almost” impeachments came in 1974, against President Richard M. Nixon. The House passed a resolution that gave the Judiciary Committee permission to investigate charges of corruption against President Nixon stemming from the Watergate scandal. Articles of impeachment were approved by the Committee, but Nixon resigned before the House voted. Nixon was never impeached.  

It is much too early in the process to predict the fate of President Trump. Currently, the House is investigating the claim that the President asked Ukraine to find information that could hurt Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in exchange for aid. The House has yet to approve articles of impeachment, and investigations into the Trump administration’s interactions with Ukraine are still ongoing.