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10 Questions About Impeachment That You Were Embarrassed to Ask

Aaron Wright
Oct. 7, 2019

With all the recent news coverage about the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, you likely have questions about the impeachment process. After all, it’s not very common that formal impeachments are called for. This article will provide a general overview of 10 common questions surrounding impeachment.

1. What is impeachment?

For an introductory article, it makes sense to start with a basic question such as, “What is impeachment?” In the United States, the term “impeachment” can occur at the federal or state level. It typically refers to the process by which a lower house of a legislature brings charges against a civil officer for crimes that are alleged to have been committed, which will be decided on by a grand jury indictment. In other words, impeachment exists to help maintain a constitutional government and remove individuals from their positions of power if they’re deemed unfit for office. In the vast majority of impeachment cases, the impeachment process involves crimes that have been committed while an officer holds a position, but in the minority of cases, an impeachment inquiry can be made into crimes that occurred before a person took a position of power. While the impeachment investigation is ongoing, the person in question will remain in office. He or she will only be removed from office if a judge or jury convicts them of crimes.

Under the Constitution, the grounds of impeachment for federal offices are limited to offenses related to treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. This official definition does leave some room for interpretation, however, and Congress uses a working definition of impeachable offenses to constitute grounds for impeachment. Generally speaking, improperly exceeding or abusing power, behaving incompatibly with the function or purpose of the office held, and misusing the office position for personal gain constitute grounds for impeachment.

2. What is the impeachment process?

While this may vary a bit from state to state, the impeachment process follows a relatively similar process. Here, we’ll focus on the federal level impeachment process, as it’s the one that’s been in the news. As such, the impeachment process at the federal level is a three-step process. After the impeachment inquiry has been made, the first step is that Congress will investigate the inquiry. In most cases, the impeachment investigation is typically started in the House Judiciary Committee. After the investigation is conducted, the House of Representatives must pass articles of impeachment. In the House, a simple majority of those present and voting must pass the articles.

If the articles of impeachment pass, the accused is considered to be impeached, and the formal allegation has been constituted. After this step, the Senate will try the accused. If the accused is the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the United States will preside over the proceedings. If any other official is facing impeachment, typically the president of vice president will preside over the proceedings. To convict the accused of impeachment, a two-thirds supermajority vote must be achieved. If an individual is convicted of impeachment, he or she will be removed from office.

3. Who can be impeached?

While presidential impeachment is often what most people think of when they hear the word “impeachment,” there are other officials that can be impeached. Under the constitution, any federal or state official may be impeached. This means that, in addition to the president, the vice president, members of Congress, representatives, cabinet members, judges, Supreme Court justices, governors and mayors may be impeached.

4. Who takes office after an official is impeached?

Again, this will vary case-by-case in regards to who fills the open position after impeachment. For simplicity, we will focus on the case of presidential impeachment. In general terms, the U.S. presidential line of succession is to be followed if the president is removed from office on terms of impeachment. That means that if President Trump is convicted for his alleged crimes and subsequently impeached, Vice President Mike Pence will take over the powers and duties of the president for the remainder of the presidential term. Pence will then get to nominate a candidate of his choosing to fill the now-vacant role of vice president. The nominated candidate will need to be confirmed by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress before he or she would become vice president. In the event that both the president and vice president are impeached, the Speaker of the House would become president.

5. Can a president be re-elected after being impeached?

Being convicted immediately removes the president from office. The Senate may vote to further punished the impeached party by disqualifying him or her from holding future office. In the history of federal impeachment, the Senate has only disqualified three individuals from holding federal office. Additionally, the Senate only requires a simply majority vote to grant disqualification punishment to an impeached individual instead of a two-thirds majority vote.

6. How many presidents have been impeached?

There have been many presidents who have been threatened with impeachment, but only two have been successfully impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. While President Richard Nixon was facing possible impeachment over the Watergate investigation, he resigned before the House could vote on his impeachment case, thus avoiding being impeached. Despite the successful impeachments, both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted and remained in office following their impeachment trials. Impeachment threats are nothing new, and every president who has been in office since Ronald Reagan has been threated with impeachment.

7. Can a president be impeached during war time?

While there is no outright answer under the constitution, technically the impeachment can occur at any time for a president. It is up to Congress if they want to launch an impeachment inquiry into a president at any time of year, including during war time. There is no protection barring the president from being impeached while the United States is at war.

8. How long does the impeachment process take?

Again, this answer will vary on a case-by-case basis. Technically speaking, an official impeachment charge can happen in just one day. Despite this, impeachment proceedings can take months and the final vote may not happen for a while after the inquiry is launched.

9. Can the president pardon himself for a crime for which he was impeached?

The answer to this question isn’t necessarily clear-cut. The Constitutional explanation of the powers of pardon don’t necessarily include a limit on who the president can grant a pardon and what they can be pardoned for. Former President Nixon floated the idea that he would pardon himself of the alleged crimes he was facing ahead of impeachment. When the Justice Department issued a memo arguing that a president couldn’t pardon himself, Nixon resigned. However, President Gerald Ford, who rose from vice president to president following Nixon’s resignation, granted Nixon a full pardon for all federal crimes committed during his presidential terms. As such, whether or not President Trump would be allowed to issue a self-pardon remains to be seen and will likely face appeals should he try to issue a self-pardon.

10. Can a former president face criminal charges as a civilian after already being impeached for the same crime?

While conviction can result in further punishment in the form of barring an impeached individual from holding future office, investigations into alleged crimes don’t end with an impeachment conviction. Further criminal or civil proceedings in either state or federal courts can ensue following impeachment and removal from office. This means that a president can be prosecuted for crimes even if he or she isn’t convicted on the grounds of impeachment.

Summary

Navigating the complexities of impeachment in the United States can be confusing. However, with the general overview provided in this article, you’re hopefully now familiar with the basic workings of what impeachment is and how it works.

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

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