What Exactly Does Impeachment Mean?


“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” 

That’s Article II, Section IV of the Constitution of the United States, the document detailing the format and inner workings of our nation’s government. It’s well known, well studied, and well worn; it’s the ingenious piece of paper that has created the world’s first successful democracy. This Constitution has lasted over two hundred years, a small time compared to some nations, but a rather extraordinary amount of time for a democracy. Even after a civil war threatened to end that democracy, she persevered, and since then our nation has only grown stronger. Given recent developments, the Constitution’s impeachment policy has become of particular interest to the American public. 

So, what is impeachment, exactly? Well, it turns out it isn’t quite what you’re thinking.

First, some context. The first recorded use of impeachment was in the British Parliament, as a check of power on the king. It gave Parliament the ability to remove government officials without needing permission from the current ruling monarch. However, this process didn’t allow for the removal of the king, as he was considered the cornerstone of British power. 

It was in this detail that the Founding Fathers disagreed with Britain’s policy. They refuted the idea of a centralized power that could act without the consent of those it governed, especially since they had just gained independence from a nation whose government operated in that manner. 

Immediately after the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers set up America’s first government under The Articles of Confederation, a document that essentially let each state create its own government and function almost totally independently from the rest. However, the Articles failed after only a few years, chiefly due to the lack of a strong centralized government that could unite the states. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, it was decided by the Founders and delegates from each state that centralized power was necessary to form a united nation and establish order.  With all agreeing that checks and balances were necessary to hinder abuses of power, the Founders set up systems such as the three branches of government, the need for Senate approval, veto power, and judicial review. If any official were to abuse his power or conspire against the nation, impeachment was set in place as a sort of final safety mechanism. 

So, how does impeachment work? 

According to the Constitution, the impeachment process starts when any citizen presents a serious claim of misconduct against any civil officer, including the president. Once an allegation is made, the case is taken to the House of Representatives, where the accusation and evidence will be reviewed and scoured by a House Committee – usually the Committee on Rules or the Committee on the Judiciary. After reviewing the evidence of misconduct, they will publish a recommendation. If there is cause to continue, the House will hold votes on the specific charges against the accused, also known as the Articles of Impeachment. If even one of the charges passes by a majority vote, the accused is impeached.

Impeachment itself does not remove an official from office, instead, it is simply the formal statement of misconduct. Removal is decided in a second step–trial–where the defendant can either be acquitted or convicted. The trial will take place before members of the Senate, who act as both the judge and the jury. It is worth noting that the Judicial Branch is only involved if the president or vice president is on trial. In this case, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the meeting. In all cases, the accused official and their lawyers are given the opportunity to defend themselves. If, at the end of the trial, the vote to convict passes by a majority of two-thirds, the impeached official is immediately removed from their position, and their case is open for standard criminal prosecution. 

It’s a pretty straightforward process, but what crimes are worthy of impeachment? The Constitution isn’t very clear about this; an official can only be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors.” So, really, there’s quite a lot of room for interpretation. 

Impeachment is a rare occurrence, let alone conviction and removal from office. In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, for attempting to replace his Secretary of War without consent of the Senate, and Bill Clinton, for lying during a sexual harassment trial. Both were acquitted. Richard Nixon faced the possibility of impeachment but resigned before any true proceedings could occur.

 Within the past week, an impeachment inquiry against President Trump has been filed on the grounds of collusion with the ally nation of Ukraine. It all began when an unidentified whistleblower complained that the president had made an inappropriate “promise” to a foreign leader. We have since learned that President Trump, while on a call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, urged Zelensky to “investigate” Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. This call suspiciously fell a mere one week after President Trump ordered his acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold back nearly $400 million aid, slated to be used for military aid in Ukraine. House Democrats, led by the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, immediately filed the inquiry. If the House finds sufficient evidence, President Trump may very well find himself added to that same short list of impeached presidents, and could possibly become the first to be removed from office. Only time will tell. 

On Thursday, President Trump began to publicly urge China to also investigate the Bidens.

Nancy Pelosi formally endorsing an impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

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