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Impeachment 101

Published February 2, 2021

An Introduction to Impeachment, How it Works, and its Consequences.

On January 13th, 2021, Donald Trump became the first president of the United States to be impeached twice. Throughout the Trump Administration’s time in office, “impeachment” has become a familiar legal term. Yet, there are still misconceptions surrounding what impeachment is and the consequences of it. In a survey conducted by Insider Business, only 30% of Americans who claimed they knew the definition of impeachment, correctly defined the term. The majority of people believe that impeachment means simply being removed from office. However, this proceeding is much more complicated than that, because of where the impeachment powers lie on the federal level. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have the power to influence a president’s impeachment. The House is responsible for filing the claim against an elected official, while the Senate is responsible for holding a trial for impeached officials with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. This procedure involves all three branches of the U.S. Government, because of the concept of checks and balances. When the Federalists were drafting the Constitution, one of the major concerns from the Anti-Federalists was about the federal government abusing its power similarly to Britain’s monarchy. Thus, in the Federalist Papers No. 66, Alexander Hamilton suggested an impeachment procedure that would serve as a check and balance on the executive office. This allows the president to be held accountable for his or her actions in cases of abuse and balances the power the president holds with the legislative branch.

Before the House can vote on whether an officer can be impeached, an article of impeachment must be filed. These articles are essentially the charges listed against the civil official. Any member of the House can file an article of impeachment to begin the process. From there, the Speaker of the House, as they are the leader of the majority party, will determine whether to proceed with the inquiry. If the Speaker of the House decides to move forward, the House will then commence a simple majority vote. This means that more than half the votes cast need to be in favor of the impeachment. Typically for presidents, the impeachment journey ends there. Impeachment up until the last administration remained a rarely utilized process with only two U.S. Presidents historically being impeached. Andrew Johnson was the first president to be impeached after he breached the Tenure of Office Act when he removed an appointed official without the consent of Congress. Former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment was more sensationalist after being investigated for an illicit affair. Clinton was charged for both lying under oath and obstruction of justice after providing false information to a grand jury and encouraging witnesses to give misleading testimonies. However, both Clinton and Johnson were acquitted in their trial with the Senate.

The Senate faces a different line of conduct to convict impeached officials. The Chief Justice oversees the trial and the Senate requires a two-thirds vote in favor of removal. In most cases, the Senate fails to convict, leaving the president impeached but not removed. If the Senate does convict, they can also ban an officer from holding a future elected or appointed office through a simple majority vote.

The aftereffects of a conviction are unprecedented territory. In former President Donald Trump’s case, since his term has already finished, he would at worst be barred from running for office again. In any other situation with a sitting president, the vice president would assume office.

During Trump’s first impeachment he underwent two charges; the House suspected him of abusing his power and obstructing Congress. The basis of these charges came from a private phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky where Trump requested information on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, that he can potentially use against him in the 2020 Presidential Election. A month after this phone call, a formal Whistleblower Complaint was filed, publicly announced, and investigated. The inquiry suggested that Ukraine would only receive military aid and an invitation to the White House if Zelensky decided to interfere in the 2020 Presidential Election. Trump, after finding out about the complaint, then advised his administration to ignore the subpoenas for documents and testimonies in the investigation, thereby obstructing justice. Nevertheless, the House voted to impeach him and then submitted the articles to the Senate. Trump was then acquitted by both counts in a near split party-line vote with Republican Senator Mitt Romeny being the exception.

Currently, the United States is still awaiting the Senate’s conviction for the second impeachment. Typically, the trial would begin immediately after the House’s decision, but the Senate agreed to a delay in light of the Biden-Harris administration transition. The trial will begin on February 9th, giving Trump’s legal team and the House’s impeachment managers two weeks to prepare for their rebuttal.

America remains divided, some anticipating a similar end as with the first impeachment, while others are working tirelessly to convince their senators to make history once again.

To find out more information on the first impeachment, the official resolution is available for the public to read.