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The impeachment process, explained



The U.S. House of Representatives voted along party lines to impeach the 45th president, Donald J Trump, on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2019.

Trump is only the third president to be impeached in U.S. history.

An impeachment is almost the same as a criminal indictment, with the House acting as a grand jury. Impeachment is not, however, a criminal process. (More on that, later.)

Once impeached, the charges go to the U.S. Senate, which holds a trial. If two-thirds of the Senate finds the president guilty on either of the charges, he will be removed from office.

Without delving into the politics of this historic moment, the Vicksburg Daily News is providing readers with the following explanations of the process. First we offer a simplified explanation, and then we offer a more detailed version. Also included are links to the House and Senate rules for the impeachment process if you want to learn more.

The process, simplified 

The House of Representatives has the sole responsibility to bring impeachment charges against a sitting president. The process of bringing those charges is called an impeachment inquiry. If the House finds, by a vote, that the charges against the president are sufficient for a trial, the president is impeached.

The U.S. Capitol

The House then passes the charges to the Senate where a trial is held. If the Senate finds the president guilty, he is removed from office. It takes two-thirds of the Senate (67) to find the president guilty.

If not found guilty in the Senate, the president may still face punishment from other courts. Former President Bill Clinton was found not guilty by the Senate, for example, but the courts found him guilty of lying to a federal judge and punished him with fines and a loss of privileges.

The process, in detail:
Impeachment is not a criminal process

Impeachable offenses do not need to be violations of the criminal code. As former President Gerald Ford once quipped, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

Richard Nixon and family leaving the White House after he resigned.

Ford, remember, pardoned Richard M. Nixon, who resigned from office upon on the threat of impeachment.

The founding fathers provided a framework in the U.S. Constitution for removing “all civil Officers”—including the president and vice president—due to “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” through impeachment.

Constitutional scholars argue that the founders included impeachment provisions to prevent officials from abusing their powers and becoming tyrants. As such, many believe they left the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” intentionally vague.

Alexander Hamilton explained that impeachment is a political process.

As Alexander Hamilton described them in the Federalist Papers, impeachable offenses arise from “the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” He added that the offenses were “political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Impeachment has little precedent

Only two other presidents in U.S. history have been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.

In 1868, Johnson was impeached for violating a law by firing one of his Cabinet secretaries. The second offense was insulting Congress.

In 1998, the articles of impeachment against Clinton included perjury and obstruction of justice for attempting to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Bill Clinton

Andrew Johnson

Both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate.

Nixon, as previously mentioned, resigned from office rather than face his imminent impeachment. The charges being considered by the House were obstruction of justice in covering up the Watergate scandal and abuse of power.

Impeachment happens in the U.S. House of Representatives

The rules of the impeachment process are not clear cut in the Constitution, providing broad latitude within a basic structure.

For the Clinton impeachment, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings and gathered testimony. It then drafted the formal accusations as articles of impeachment.

The hallway leading to the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol.

In 2015, the then-majority Republican House adopted some of the rule changes followed by the Trump impeachment. Among them is the unilateral power of some committee chairman to issue subpoenas. In other words, committee members don’t get to vote on who gets a subpoena and who doesn’t.

Those rules also allow for a portion of the impeachment inquiry to be held in private, behind closed doors.

The rules for a president’s impeachment in the House of Representatives were updated and outlined by the Congressional Research Service in November of this year.

In the Trump impeachment inquiry, the process was divided between two committees: the Intelligence Committee, which was responsible for fact finding (hearing from witnesses, for example) and writing a report on its findings, and the Judiciary Committee, which wrote the articles of impeachment.

In both the Clinton and Trump impeachments, the articles then went to the House floor for debate and a vote of the full chamber.

If a majority votes to approve the articles of impeachment, the president is impeached.

At this point, the impeachment is a formal reprimand. The House does not have the power to remove a president—or any other “civil Officer”—from office.

The House then turns over the process to the Senate.

The U.S. Senate holds the impeachment trial

To determine whether the impeachment charges warrant the president’s removal from office, the U.S. Senate holds a trial.

It could also vote to dismiss the charges outright.

The U.S. Senate chamber as it might have looked during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial.

The rules for the Senate in an impeachment were adopted in 1986.

It’s important to remember that even though this portion of the process is called a trial, it is still a political process, not a criminal process.

In a presidential impeachment trial, the House acts as the prosecutor, choosing “impeachment managers” to argue its case. The president’s attorneys, not his attorney general, act as his defense team.

Presiding over the trial is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. While the chief justice is responsible for making procedural rulings, the Senate can vote to overrule his decisions.

The full complement of 100 Senators serves as the jury, and they all must take an oath to “do impartial justice.”

The legislative and executive business of the Senate is suspended during an impeachment trial, which is conducted in public.

The rules allow for many of the proceedings you would expect in a trial: opening and closing statements, witnesses heard and cross-examined, subpoenas issued along with requests for documents and so forth. The process also allows for questions from senators to the managers and defense attorneys.

The U.S. Capitol rotunda.

It’s up to the Senate to agree on which rules to follow. In the Johnson trial, witnesses were called. In the Clinton trial, they weren’t.

As in a criminal trial, the defendant (the president in this case) is not required to appear or give testimony.

At the end of the trial, the Senate votes to convict or acquit. If he is acquitted, the president goes about his business.

A conviction on either of the articles, which requires a two-thirds majority (67 of 100) vote, will remove the president from office.

A Senate impeachment conviction has never happened; however, if the president is removed from office (or, like Nixon, resigns during the process), the vice president becomes the president of the United States.

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