What Is Impeachment & How Does It Work, Exactly?

presidential impeachment

By definition, impeachment is a formal charge of misconduct made against someone holding public office. The purpose is to bring charges against a government official. Being impeached does not – by default – remove any official from office.

Of course, in most cases, it’s the hope that this government official will be eventually removed from office if found guilty of the charges brought against them. But, again, impeachment doesn’t necessarily remove anyone from office.

There are plenty of myths and misunderstandings surrounding impeachment. One of the biggest is misunderstanding what impeachment is. In it’s simplest terms, it’s an indictment that – if found to be sound – moves onto a formal charge.

But the process of impeaching a president has several complex moving pieces that we hope to shed some light on for you.

Learn more: What Is the Difference Between an Indictment and a Charge?


How Impeachment Works

Here are the cliff notes if you just want to jump straight in;

• The House of Representatives votes whether to charge an official with the alleged wrongdoing
• The Senate considers the articles of impeachment
• The Senate votes on whether to remove the official from power
• Any fines or imprisonment for crimes committed while in office are left to civil courts.

The impeachment process usually has two basic stages. The first stage is the impeachment itself. That is; the development of formal accusations. Most often this responsibility is given to the lower legislative chamber, like the house or assembly.

During this first stage, accusations are heard and investigated. If the body believes that the misconduct actually occurred, the charges are developed and voted upon. These charges are the articles of impeachment. Based on the articles of impeachment, the body is also tasked with determining if this government official should remain in office while this trial is ongoing.

If the requisite affirmative vote is reached, the articles of impeachment are forwarded to the body responsible for the second stage of this process.

The second stage is the formal consideration of the charges that were laid out in the article of impeachment. The responsibility is usually assigned to the upper legislative body, like the Senate. This stage resembles a trial.

Both sides may call witnesses and present evidence and arguments. When the presentation of arguments is completed, the body must vote whether to find a person guilty of the charges. A supermajority vote is usually required to convict.

After this is done, the Senate votes on whether to remove this official from power. This can be permanently or temporarily. If it’s permanent, this person may be told they can never hold a position in the government again. If it’s temporary, there are usually guidelines as to when they can run for office again.

If the body finds the impeached person guilty, any punishment will need to be decided in a civil court. Which has never happened with a president, but has happened with lower-level officials.


What Are Impeachable Offensives?

Impeachable offenses include treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors. High crimes and misdemeanors, however, is the common parlance of England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, because “high crimes and misdemeanors” is ambiguous in the Constitution, it’s generally harder to charge a government official with these types of crimes.

The crimes an official can be charged with don’t end there, though. Here are some offenses other government officials have been removed from office and charged with:

  • Jim Traficant: found guilty on ten felony counts of financial corruption in 2002
  • Bill Janklow: convicted of second-degree manslaughter for running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist in 2003
  • Frank Ballance: admitted to federal charges of money laundering and mail fraud in 2005
  • John Korsmo: plead guilty to lying to Congress in 2005
  • Claude Allen: arrested for a series of felony thefts in retail stores in 2006
  • Lester Crawford: plead guilty to conflict of interest in 2006
  • Larry Craig: arrested for lewd conduct in a men’s restroom, entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct in 2007
  • Felipe Sixto: convicted of misusing money in 2009

And those are just a handful of charges that came about during the W. Bush administration.


How Many Senators Does It Take To Impeach A President?

This sounds like a setup for a bad punchline, but it’s not.

In the case of presidents, a two-thirds vote of the Senate is needed to convict. This means at least 67 Senators must vote in favor of removing an impeached president from office. However, if the president is found guilty, they’ll be removed from office.

And, again, no president has ever been found guilty during an impeachment process.

However, these requirements are not the same for lower government officials. It’s considerably harder to impeach a president and remove them from office than it is to remove lower officials from office.


How Long Does The Process Take?

It’s hard to say given how few impeachment processes the US has seen. But armed with the best – incredibly rough -figures we could find, here’s what to expect:

• Investigation phase: 120 days on average, but could take as few as 112 or as many as 500
• House debate: 6 days on average, but could be as few as the same day or as many as 30
• Senate delays: roughly 20 days, but could be as few as none or as many as 500
• Senate trials: could be as few as 0 or as many as 120 days, but averages around 36

Adding it all up gives us an average of 182 days – or roughly six months. But it could range from as few as 112 days (about three and a half months) to as many as 1,150 days (which is roughly three years and three months.)

So, again, it’s hard to call it.


Presidents Who Have Been Impeached

In the US’s history, only three presidents have faced formal impeachment; Johnson, Clinton, and Trump. Though – so far – no president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Nixon faced the threat of impeachment, but he was never actually impeached.

All but one president (Trump) formally resigned when faced with the possibility of forced removal from office.

Additionally, no president has ever been found guilty of the crime they’re accused of. Andrew Johnson was the closest, with 66 senators voting to convict. Meaning he missed the 67 mark by just one vote.


What Happened In Trump’s Impeachment?

If you missed the final results in early 2020; nothing. A whole lot of nothing. Trump was acquitted by the senate, which is the second stage of the impeachment process. Only 48 senators voted to convict when 67 were needed for a conviction to happen.

But, according to some sources, this isn’t necessarily the end of the line for Trump in court proceedings. Particularly now that he seems to be out of office.

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