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What is Impeachment?

Impeachment is a formal process where a sitting president, judge, or federal official is accused of misconduct. It's a constitutional mechanism that allows Congress to remove a public official from office for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." But what does this process involve, and how has it shaped our political landscape? Join us as we delve deeper.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Impeachment is the legal process of bringing charges against a government official to determine whether he or she can be forcibly removed from office. Despite a common misconception, it is not the removal from office itself, but rather a necessary step towards this removal in many of the world's governments. If the trial following impeachment results in the official's conviction, he or she will be removed from office. However, not every charge leads to a conviction.

Many countries include impeachment in their constitutions, though the particulars may differ. For example, who may be impeached, the body allowed to initiate the proceedings, and the amount of votes required to convict the impeached official may vary. Usually, only a constitutional body has the right to initiate impeachment, and in most cases it is the legislative entity. The process is typically used only in the case of crimes committed by the official in question, not for simple mismanagement or unpopularity. An impeachment trial is similar in format to any other type of legal trial.

The White House. Only two US presidents have ever been impeached, and both were acquitted.
The White House. Only two US presidents have ever been impeached, and both were acquitted.

In some countries, such as Ireland, only the president may be impeached. In many other countries, any public official is subject to impeachment for crimes committed. In the United States, charges may be brought on both the federal and the state level. State impeachments are governed by individual state constitutions and initiated by state legislative bodies.

Impeached government officials are tried before the U.S. Senate.
Impeached government officials are tried before the U.S. Senate.

Impeachment is fairly rare in today's world. England, for example, has not used it since 1806. It is considered an extreme measure, only to be used in cases of extreme misconduct on the part of the official. Often, the threat of impeachment is enough to make an impact, such as when US President Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 under the threat of impending impeachment.

In 1868, Andrew Johnson became the first U.S. President to be impeached, although he was later acquitted.
In 1868, Andrew Johnson became the first U.S. President to be impeached, although he was later acquitted.

While 17 federal officers have been impeached in the United States since the country was founded, only seven were removed from office as a direct result of the proceedings. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only presidents to have been impeached, in 1868 and 1998 respectively. The Senate, however, acquitted both men.

Though impeachment is rare, many historians and political analysts argue that most cases are politically driven and even frivolous in retrospect. Nevertheless, it remains a powerful tool to keep the conduct of elected officials above board, even if it is rarely exercised. The mere existence of an impeachment clause in a country's constitution can have an effect on the conduct of its leaders.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is impeachment?

Impeachment is a formal process by which a public official is charged with misconduct. In the United States, it is a power granted to the House of Representatives to accuse a sitting president, vice president, or other civil officers of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," as outlined in Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. Impeachment itself does not remove the official from office; it is merely the statement of charges, akin to an indictment in criminal law.

How does the impeachment process work?

The impeachment process begins in the House of Representatives, where any member can introduce an impeachment resolution or a charge of misconduct. The House Judiciary Committee usually investigates the allegations, and if they find sufficient grounds, they will draft articles of impeachment. The full House then votes on these articles; if at least one gets a majority vote, the official is impeached. The process then moves to the Senate for a trial, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict and remove the official from office.

Has a U.S. President ever been removed from office through impeachment?

No U.S. President has ever been removed from office through impeachment. While three presidents—Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump—have been impeached by the House of Representatives, none were convicted by the Senate. In each case, the Senate trial resulted in an acquittal, meaning they did not reach the necessary two-thirds majority vote for conviction and removal from office.

What are "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" in the context of impeachment?

"High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is a term from the U.S. Constitution that refers to serious abuses of power by public officials that are not necessarily criminal offenses under ordinary law. The phrase is deliberately broad, allowing Congress to interpret what constitutes an impeachable offense. Historically, it has encompassed corruption, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and other acts of malfeasance that undermine the integrity of public office or the rule of law.

Can a public official be impeached after leaving office?

There is debate among scholars about whether a public official can be impeached after leaving office. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly address this scenario, but there is precedent for post-term impeachments in American history. For example, in 1876, Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached by the House after he had resigned, although he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate. The rationale for post-term impeachment is to prevent the official from holding future office and to formally condemn their conduct.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a HistoricalIndex editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a HistoricalIndex editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

ElizaBennett

I tend to think that presidential impeachment requires a unique combination of circumstances. The figure has to attract an unusual amount of political vitriol even before any wrongdoing comes to light and in most cases, the figure does have to actually have done something wrong. In the case of President Clinton, some people questioned whether his actions were quite bad enough for impeachment; perjury is certainly illegal, but the Constitution seems to envision particularly bad crimes.

Now, in the case of poor Andrew Johnson, he hadn't done anything wrong; the charges against him were particularly manufactured. But the Republicans of the day more than made up for it with extra vitriol.

miriam98

@allenJo - While there may have been a political component, you have to realize that even some Republicans voted to acquit Clinton in the Senate.

That doesn’t argue one way or another whether it was right or wrong, just that not all Republicans fell in line with wanting to remove him from office. Besides, the impeachment process requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict and remove from office. We rarely have that kind of majority for anything to take place anymore.

allenJo

Some people think that the Clinton impeachment was politically driven, an effort to get back at the Democrats for what they (supposedly) did to Nixon.

Others think that it was a principled position to impeach Clinton, given that he basically perjured himself and famously redefined the word “is” for time immemorial.

One thing is certain; in politics, nothing happens in a vacuum. I personally believe that it is difficult to take so called principled positions in politics because so much of what you do has a political payoff, and even your strategy is too often focus grouped.

That may be cynical on my part but I think that’s the reality of politics today.

anon45589

Based on Barack Obama's background he should be impeached.

anon5133

what is the nature of an impeachment trial?

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    • The White House. Only two US presidents have ever been impeached, and both were acquitted.
      By: Sandra Manske
      The White House. Only two US presidents have ever been impeached, and both were acquitted.
    • Impeached government officials are tried before the U.S. Senate.
      Impeached government officials are tried before the U.S. Senate.
    • In 1868, Andrew Johnson became the first U.S. President to be impeached, although he was later acquitted.
      By: The British Library
      In 1868, Andrew Johnson became the first U.S. President to be impeached, although he was later acquitted.