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What Is Impeachment And How Does The Process Work?

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What Is Impeachment? How The Process Works & What It Means To Impeach The President

Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, officially became the ​third president in our Nation's history to be impeached today when the House of Representatives voted to charge him with high crimes and misdemeanors, based on two articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

A trial in the Republican-led Senate is expected to begin early in 2020.

As the American public on both sides of party lines grows increasingly anxious about what will happen now that Trump has been impeached, it's arguably more important than ever to be informed about what impeachment is, what it does and does not mean, what can and cannot be considered grounds for impeachment, how the process works, and what happens when a president is impeached.

What is impeachment?

The formal statement from United States Senate reads:

"If a federal official commits a crime or otherwise acts improperly, the House of Representatives may impeach — formally charge — that official. If the official subsequently is convicted in a Senate impeachment trial, he is removed from office."

So while many people mistakenly believe impeaching a president means removing them from office, it does not.

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The definition of impeachment pertains specifically to the President or other federal officers being charged with what is considered an "impeachable offense." This sets the stage for a trial. Only if the person charged/impeached is convicted are they then relieved of their elected position.

Why was Donald Trump impeached?

Trump was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors based on two articles of impeachment:

  • Abuse of power: for allegedly "using the powers of his office [to solicit] the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 United States Presidential election." The vote Article I was 230-197.
  • Obstruction of Congress: for the allegedly "unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance of subpoenas issues by the House of Representatives pursuant to its 'sole Power of Impeachment'." The vote on Article II was 229-198.

What is considered grounds for impeachment?

“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.” — U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 4

As stated formally above, there are four legal reasons for impeachment:

  • Treason
  • Bribery
  • Other high Crimes and Misdemeanors (technically reasons three and four)

The National Constitution Center explains the standards of the last category are left "open-ended for the reason many constitutional provisions are vague and open-ended. In the words of the great Chief Justice John Marshall, the 'constitution [is] intended to endure for ages to come and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.

"In the context of impeachment, this means that the Constitution cannot be expected to specify in detail every ground on which impeachment is or is not permissible. If it attempted to do so, an individual who should be impeached might evade this punishment because the officer’s conduct does not meet some technical element of the definition even though the officer’s conduct had so harmed the nation that all agree the officer should be removed. Instead, the Constitution sets forth the general principle of impeachment and leaves its more specific definition to be developed by the House of Representatives and the Senate."

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How does the impeachment process work?

Impeachment is essentially a two-step process, with the U.S. Constitutions Articles of Impeachment "vesting the power to impeach in the House of Representatives, while imbuing the Senate with the power to try impeachments."

The impeachment process is described in the Constitution as follows:

Article 1, Section 2, Cl. 5: "The House of Representatives ... shall have the sole Power of Impeachment."

For a president to be impeached, "The House of Representatives must first pass, by a simple majority of those present and voting, articles of impeachment, which constitute the formal allegation or allegations. Upon passage, the defendant has been 'impeached'."

Article 1, Section 3, Cl. 6 & 7: "The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: and no Person shall be convicted without Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present. Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment according to Law."

Article 2, Section 2, Cl. 1: "The President ... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

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What happens when a president is impeached?

Just as there is a line of succession to the throne of England, we in the States have a queue of our own.

The United States presidential line of succession "is the order in which officials of the United States federal government assume the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States if the incumbent president becomes incapacitated, dies, resigns, or is removed from office (by impeachment by the House of Representatives and subsequent conviction by the Senate) ... The line of succession follows the order of Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President pro tempore of the Senate, and then the eligible heads of federal executive departments who form the president's Cabinet."

If Trump is impeached, the current order of succession is:

1. Vice President Mike Pence, Republican
2. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Democrat
3. President pro tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley, Republican
4. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Republican
5. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Republican
6. Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, Republican (eligibility unclear)
7. Attorney General William Barr, Republican
8. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Republican
9. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Republican
10. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Republican
11. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, Republican
12. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Republican
13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, Republican
14. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry Republican
15. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Republican
16. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, Republican
17. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, Independent (eligibility unclear)

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How many U.S. Presidents have been impeached, and which?

Over the course of U.S. history, there have been only two impeached presidents to date, both of whom were Democrats:

  • President Andrew Johnson was impeached on February 24, 1868, "after violating the newly created Tenure of Office Act by a 126 to 47 vote. President Johnson was acquitted by the Senate, which voted 35–19 in favor of conviction, falling one vote short of the necessary two-thirds needed to remove him from office. The Tenure of Office Act would later be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in dicta."
  • President Bill Clinton was impeached on December 19, 1998, "on articles charging perjury (specifically, lying to a federal grand jury) by a 228–206 vote and obstruction of justice by a 221–212 vote. The House rejected other articles: one was a count of perjury in a civil deposition in Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton (by a 205–229 vote), the second accused Clinton of abuse of power (by a 148–285 vote). President Clinton was acquitted by the Senate. The votes to remove him from office fell short of the necessary two-thirds: 45–55 on obstruction of justice and 50–50 on perjury."

Again mistakenly, impeachment being a rare and confusing process, many believe President Richard Nixon was impeached, but while impeachment proceedings against him had been referred to the full House for consideration, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before the process went any further.

Will Trump be impeached?

How close is he to impeachment? Will he resign? How close is Trump to impeachment?

The answers remain a mystery at this time, but we'll be sure to keep you updated as news develops.

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Deputy Editor Arianna Jeret, MA/MSW, has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Style, MSN, Fox News, Bustle, Parents and more. Find her on Twitter and Instagram for more.