Impeachment: A History and Process

President Trump hasn’t even lasted a half year and people are already calling for his impeachment. But really what is impeachment? What does this process look like and what are the chances of it actually happen? What does it mean for democracy in the American republic?

Impeachment is the event in which a high ranking government official is removed from office; it is typically associated with the president but can also apply to the vice president, civil officers, and in the case of state government the governor. Impeachment occurs when the individual is charged (or begins when an investigation starts) with treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Treason is defined as “the act of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government. An example of treason is Tokyo Rose, who was born in the U.S., thus a U.S. citizen, but while in Japan denounced the U.S. government and troops. Bribery is defined as “the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties”. Vice President Spiro Agnew (VP to President Nixon) had to resign in his post as vice president because he accepted bribes while in public office. High crimes and misdemeanors are the most often used grounds for impeachment because of this broad language. It applies to any other instances abusing power of the post or otherwise inappropriate misconduct (drunk while on the clock, favoritism/nepotism, using the office for financial gain, etc.). President Bill Clinton was impeached under “high crimes and misdemeanors” in reference to his abuse of power over Monica Lewinsky, but more importantly the lies surrounding the scandal. Because impeachment is a political and not not criminal process, the president an be impeached for such events that are not criminal, such as the Lewinsky affair.

Impeachment must begin with the U.S. House of Representatives, as it is the only body that has the power to review and subpoena an official. Once the House draws up the report and it passes, the Senate reviews the report and begins the hearings; the Senate is the only body that can convict and remove an official. So the House invests allegations against the official and passes or vetoes the article of impeachment. The House needs a simple majority to pass the article. Once passed, the House presents the case to the Senate, who holds the trial. The official being impeached can defend themselves with their own lawyers. The Vice President, acting in capacity as President of the Senate, oversees the trial, unless the person being tried is the President, in which case the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial. The Senate needs a two-thirds majority to find the official guilty and thus be officially impeached and removed from office.

The Senate makes the rules for each impeachment trial. This can include things like limiting witnesses and length of depositions, or if witness accounts will be live or videotaped.

Another check removing a government official, specifically the president, is the 25th Amendment. It allows for removal of the president from office without an impeachment trial. In this case, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet will report to Congress that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, in which case the vice president would immediately be made president.

Thirteen presidents have been threatened with impeachment: Tyler, Buchanan, Johnson, Grant, Hoover, Truman, Nixon, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, Obama, and Trump. The first impeachment proceedings against a U.S. president occurred against John Tyler, whose use of the veto was questioned by Congress where he was charged with 9 impeachable offences. Buchanan’s administration was constantly investigated for plausible impeachment charges, but none could ever be found, though it was revealed that his administration is one of the most corrupt. Several attempts to impeach Johnson occurred, relating to corruption, but none could stick to him. Some in Grant’s administration were corrupt and in the course of a year multiple scandals broke out, though none relating directly to Grant. The impeachment articles for Hoover were largely struck down, likely relating to the fact that it was an effectual Congressional session and they merely needed something to do. Extensive hearings were held for Truman, whose charges were brought against him when he fired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. A multitude of articles were brought against Nixon with calls for hearings and a special prosecutor; these became especially prevalent with the release of the Watergate tapes that sealed Nixon’s fate. An article for impeachment was brought against Reagan for the Iran-Contra Affair and resulted in a special prosecutor. H.W. Bush was threatened with impeachment for starting the Gulf War. Impeachment charges were initially brought against Clinton for foreign sources providing campaign funds to influence the election (the People’s Republic of China), which was before the Lewinsky scandal. Eventually he was impeached and acquitted over the Lewinsky scandal. W. Bush was threatened for his role in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Obama was provided impeachment articles for drone programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for abusing his executive power. Nixon resigned from office before he could actually be impeached and Johnson and Clinton were the only two presidents to see the full extant of impeachment ending in their removal from public office.

There is talk supporting and threats of impeaching current President Trump. One reason is his unwillingness to divest from his business interests, which is in conflict with the Constitution's Foreign Emoluments Clause. Another reason include firing FBI Director James Comey in relation to the FBI investigation into Trump-Russian relations revealing an obstruction of justice. Another reason include questionable dealings with the Russian government. It is important to remember that the president does not need criminal reasons to be impeached because the impeachment process is political, not criminal. If there is a distrust or disbelief in the president to carry out his duties, he can have an article of impeachment drawn up for non-criminal actions.

For an excellent review into the impeachment process and how it specifically applied to past impeachment investigations and hearings, please see this video.

Drake University International Relations (MENA focused), Socio-Legal studies, religious studies and Arabic graduate. This is a blog-like post to learn and share