As soon as the Democrats officially gain the majority in the House when they are sworn in at the start of the 116th Congress, they’ll impeach President Trump and our national nightmare will be over, right?
Sorry, but no.
So what does it take to impeach a president?
Leaving aside what a president can be impeached for, the process of impeachment has two steps. The House of Representatives does the 1st step, and the Senate does the 2nd step.
Step #1 The House decides whether or not to charge the president
Any Representative can draft articles of impeachment. (Article = charge.) Each of those articles needs to be discussed in the Judiciary Committee. They essentially investigate each charge that is being made, and determine which ones have enough merit. Then the Chair of the Committee officially determines which articles they’ll vote on. For each article that gets a simple majority to vote Yes, it moves out of Committee and goes to the whole House.
At that point, the Speaker of the House decides whether or not to bring those articles up for a vote. Each article will be voted on separately. Again, every article that gets a simple majority to vote Yes, moves on to the Senate.
Step #2 The Senate decides whether to convict or acquit the president
The Senate conducts the trial. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the court. The House appoints “managers” (usually members of the Judiciary Committee) to argue each article of impeachment. Think of those managers as the prosecutors. The president is entitled to a defense. Evidence is presented. Witnesses may be called. At the end of the trial, the full Senate votes on each article of impeachment. Think of the Senators as jurors. If 67 or more Senators find the president guilty of one of the articles of impeachment, the president is convicted and thrown out of office. If an article receives less than 67 guilty votes, he/she is acquitted of that charge.
How is impeachment different from a trial in a court of law?
Although the two steps of the impeachment process mimic what we see play out in our courts (a person gets charged with a crime and then a trial determines their innocence or guilt), it is important to remember that impeachment is a purely political process.
Politicians determine what to charge the president with–the Constitution only says that civic officers can be charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Seriously, the only guidance the Constitution offers about impeachment is one sentence long* (excluding the short sections that describe the roles that the House and Senate play.)
I mean, Gerald Ford (President Nixon’s Vice President) famously said, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
If a president is convicted of one or more of the articles impeachment, the only thing that happens is that he/she is removed from their political office. No fines or jail time would be assessed unless the president is tried in a criminal or civil court after he/she is removed from office.
What will it take to get President Trump impeached?
It is true that when the 116th Congress starts in January, the Democrats will have the majority in the House. That also means that a Democrat will be the Chair of the Judiciary Committee (it will most likely be Rep. Jerry Nadler). Technically they have the numbers to consider articles of impeachment against Trump, vote on them in the House, and send them to the Senate for a trial.
In the Senate, if all the Democrats vote to convict the President, that’s 47 of the 67 votes needed. They’d need 20 Republican Senators to vote to convict the President.
Which is why it’s important to remember that this is a political process. It does not matter how much evidence there is for an article of impeachment if there isn’t the political will to convict the President. The question everyone is asking is when (or if) the tide will turn enough that 20 Republicans have the political will to vote to convict the President.
Will the shellacking the Republicans got in the midterms turn the tide? Will the continued reports out of Mueller’s office turn the tide? Will Trump do something so horrendous that the Republicans will turn on him? Only time will tell.
Have any presidents been impeached?
After reading this article, is that the best way to ask the question?
Good point. Have any presidents been impeached AND convicted?
Two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached but both of them were acquitted by the Senate and so remained in office. As for Richard Nixon, the Judiciary Committee had drafted and approved three articles of impeachment but then the audio tapes (i.e. the “smoking gun”) became public and Nixon’s support in Congress collapsed. He resigned shortly thereafter when it became clear that the full House would approve the articles of impeachment and the Senate would convict him.
*The U.S. Constitution, Article II The one sentence explaining impeachment is the final section, Section 4.
Impeachment: History, Art and Archives from the U.S. House of Representatives
Impeachment from the U.S. Senate
Some historical context as to how the framers of the Constitution debated to structure the impeachment of a president. How Does Impeachment Work from The Atlantic
Efforts to impeach Donald Trump from Wikipedia