Jul 12, 2017 - Politics & Policy
Facts Matter

How constitutional steps like impeachment actually work

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

The issue:

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced an article of impeachment on Wednesday against President Trump, the day after Donald Trump, Jr. released his email exchange in which he replied "I love it" to an offer of help from the Russian government against Hillary Clinton.

Why it matters:

Any move to impeach or remove Trump from office would require substantial bipartisan support, and most members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle — aren't talking impeachment just yet. But the political ground might be shifting against Trump: John McCain used the word "Watergate" and top House Republicans have demanded to see Comey's memos regarding his presidential interactions in full.

The facts:

The Constitution grants Congress the ability to impeach and remove "the President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States" for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." But Trump might be concerned about how then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford summed things up in 1970:

An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.

How it goes down: An impeachment is only the first step toward a president's removal from office, as two presidents — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — have survived impeachment previously. Here's how the relatively simple process for impeachment and removal works:

  1. The House of Representatives passes articles of impeachment with a simple majority. Impeachment itself carries no consequence. It's simply a formal statement of charges against the official.
  2. The Senate then tries the accused official — with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding over a presidential impeachment — and two-thirds of senators must vote for a conviction in order to remove the official from office. This is where both Johnson and Clinton survived, Johnson escaped by just one vote, while the vote against Clinton wasn't very close.

It's worth noting: The impeachments of both Johnson and Clinton came when the opposing party controlled Congress.

What about Nixon? He resigned before the House brought formal impeachment proceedings against him, after Republican congressional leaders told him in the Oval Office that the Senate would almost certainly convict and remove him.

Another option: A president could also be removed under the 25th Amendment if the Vice President and a majority of Cabinet officials decide that the president is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." It's designed to transfer the power of the presidency after an emergency.

Go deeper