The Impeachment Process in US Government

Ben Franklin’s Better Way of Removing 'Obnoxious' Presidents

Old photo of truck with an “Impeach Nixon” banner parked outside the White House
Impeach Nixon Protest. MPI / Getty Images

The impeachment process in U.S. government was first suggested by Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Noting that the traditional mechanism for removing “obnoxious” chief executives — like kings — from power had been assassination, Franklin glibly suggested the impeachment process as a more rational and preferable method. 

Key Takeaways: Impeachment Process

  • The process of impeachment is established by the U.S. Constitution.
  • The impeachment process must be initiated in the House of Representatives with the passage of a resolution listing the charges or “Articles of Impeachment” against the official being impeached.
  • If passed by the House, the Articles of Impeachment are considered by the Senate in a trial presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, with the 100 Senators serving as the jury.
  • If the Senate votes in favor of conviction by a 2/3 supermajority vote (67 votes), the Senate will then vote to remove the official from office. 

Under the U.S. Constitution, the President of the United States, the Vice President, and “and all civil Officers of the United States” may be impeached and removed from office if convicted of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The Constitution also establishes the impeachment process.

Presidential impeachment may be the last thing you would ever think could happen in America. In fact, since 1841, over one-third of all American Presidents have either died in office, became disabled, or resigned. However, no American President has ever been forced from office due to impeachment.

Taking the vote on the impeachment of President Johnson
Taking the vote on the impeachment of President Johnson. Historical/Getty Images

Three U.S. presidents have been impeached by the House—but not convicted and removed from office by the Senate—and two others have been the subject of serious impeachment discussion:

  • Andrew Johnson was actually impeached when Congress became unhappy with the way he was dealing with some post-Civil War matters, but Johnson was acquitted in the Senate by one vote and remained in office.
  • Congress introduced a resolution to impeach John Tyler over state's rights issues, but the resolution failed.
  • Congress debated impeaching President Richard Nixon over the Watergate break-in, but he resigned before any impeachment proceedings began.
  • William J. Clinton was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was eventually acquitted by the Senate.
  • Donald Trump was impeached by the House on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress related to the solicitation of foreign interference from Ukraine in the 2020 presidential election.

The impeachment process plays out in Congress and requires critical votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is often said that the “House impeaches and the Senate convicts,” or not. In essence, the House first decides if there are grounds to impeach the president, and if it does, the Senate holds a formal impeachment trial.

House Judiciary Committee Meeting in 1974
House Judiciary Committee Meeting in 1974 discussing Nixon's possible impeachment.  Bettmann/Getty Images

In the House of Representatives

  • The House Judiciary Committee decides whether or not to proceed with impeachment. If they do...
  • The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee will propose a resolution calling for the Judiciary Committee to begin a formal inquiry into the issue of impeachment.
  • Based on their inquiry, the Judiciary Committee will send another resolution composed of one or more "Articles of Impeachment" to the full House stating that impeachment is warranted and why or that impeachment is not called for.
  • The Full House (probably operating under special floor rules set by the House Rules Committee) will debate and vote on each Article of Impeachment.
  • Should any one of the Articles of Impeachment be approved by a simple majority vote, the President will be "impeached." However, being impeached is sort of like being indicted for a crime. The president will remain in office pending the outcome of the Senate impeachment trial.
Bill and Hillary Clinton at the start of the Clinton Impeachment trial
Bill and Hillary Clinton at the start of the Clinton Impeachment trial. David Hume Kennerly /Getty Images

In the Senate

  • The Articles of Impeachment are received from the House.
  • The Senate formulates rules and procedures for holding a trial.
  • The trial will be held with the president represented by his lawyers. A select group of House members serves as "prosecutors." The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (currently John G. Roberts) presides with all 100 Senators acting as the jury.
  • The Senate meets in private session to debate a verdict.
  • The Senate, in open session, votes on a verdict. A 2/3 supermajority vote of the Senate will result in a conviction.
  • The Senate will vote to remove the President from office.
  • The Senate may also vote (by a simple majority) to prohibit the President from holding any public office in the future.

Once impeached officials are convicted in the Senate, their removal from office is automatic and may not be appealed. In the 1993 case of Nixon v. United States, the U.S. the Supreme Court ruled that the federal judiciary cannot review impeachment proceedings.

At the state level, state legislatures can impeach state officials, including governors, in accordance with their respective state constitutions.

Impeachable Offenses

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution says, "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."

To date, two federal judges have been impeached and removed from office based on charges of bribery. No federal official has ever faced impeachment based on charges of treason. All other impeachment proceedings held against federal officials, including three presidents, have been based on charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

According to constitutional lawyers, "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" are (1) real criminality—breaking a law; (2) abuses of power; (3) "violation of public trust" as defined by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. In 1970, then-Representative Gerald R. Ford defined impeachable offenses as "whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

Historically, Congress has issued Articles of Impeachment for acts in three general categories:

  • Exceeding the constitutional bounds of the powers of the office.
  • Behavior grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office.
  • Employing the power of the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

The impeachment process is political, rather than criminal in nature. Congress has no power to impose criminal penalties on impeached officials. But criminal courts may try and punish officials if they have committed crimes.

The Impeachment of Donald Trump

On December 18, 2019, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voted mostly along party lines to impeach 45th President of the United States Donald Trump on charges of abusing his constitutionally granted power and obstructing Congress.

Donald Trump acceptance speech
Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech after losing the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The two articles of impeachment—Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress—were based on a phone conversation between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. During the July 25, 2019, call, President Trump allegedly made the release of a previously withheld $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine contingent on Zelenskiy’s agreement to publicly announce that his government was investigating Trump’s political rival and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter regarding their business dealings with Burisma, a major Ukrainian gas company. The military aid, needed by Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia, was released by the White House on September 11, 2019.

The articles of impeachment accused Trump of abusing his presidential powers by seeking a foreign government’s political assistance and interference in the U.S. electoral process, and of obstructing a congressional investigation by refusing to allow administration officials to comply with subpoenas demanding their testimony in the House impeachment inquiry.

With Chief Justice John G. Roberts presiding, the Senate impeachment trial began on January 21, 2020. With House impeachment managers presenting the case for conviction and White House lawyers presenting the defense, opening and closing arguments took place from January 22 to 25. President Trump’s lawyers argued that his acts regarding Ukraine did not represent “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and thus failed to meet the constitutional threshold for conviction and removal from office.

During the last week of January, the House impeachment managers and key Senate Democrats argued that material witnesses—particularly former national security adviser John Bolton—should be subpoenaed to testify at the trial. However, the Senate Republican majority defeated a motion to call witnesses in a 49-51 vote on January 31.

On February 5, 2020, the impeachment trial ended with the Senate voting to acquit President Trump of both charges against him. On the charge of abuse of power, the motion to acquit passed 52-48, with Senator Mitt Romney of Utah being the only Republican voting for conviction. On the charge of obstruction of Congress, the acquittal motion passed on a straight party-line vote of 53-47. “It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles,” declared Chief Justice Roberts after the second vote.