Impeaching Donald Trump: Here's what that really means

Impeaching Donald Trump: Here's what that really means
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Donald Trump will take the oath of office to become president on Friday, but many are already speculating that his presidency won't last long. Some, in fact, have been hoping for Trump's impeachment since the night of his election.

Between Trump's myriad of business conflicts, alleged entanglements with Russia and mounting lawsuits, it won't take long for the new president to commit impeachable offenses. In fact, the grounds for Trump's impeachment will be pretty instantaneous. 

"Unless Donald Trump changes course, he will be in violation of the Constitution on day one, hour one and minute one because his businesses in the United States and around the world receive a steady flow of proceeds from foreign governments," Norman Eisen, a former White House ethics lawyer, told NPR in December. 

When Trump said at a Jan. 11 press conference that he would turn his business over to his sons, Eisen predicted Trump's "ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption."

The U.S. Capitol Building as it is prepared for Trump's inauguration
Source: 
Patrick Semansky/AP

But contrary to popular belief, impeachment doesn't mean being removed from office; the term is more akin to being indicted for a crime. To be successfully removed from office, there's a lengthier judicial process that ensues. 

Here's what to know about the entire impeachment process.

What is an impeachable offense?

Article 2 of the United States Constitution states, "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."

These parameters for impeachment are fairly vague, giving Congress the opportunity to begin the impeachment process because of criminal activity, abuses of power or any other alleged infractions.

"An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history," then-House minority leader and former President Gerald Ford said in 1970, as quoted in the Huffington Post.

The impeachment process is also usually sparked by political — rather than legal — motives, as members of Congress are unlikely to put their political careers at risk by impeaching a president who's popular with Americans. "Ninety-nine percent of the game is how popular is the president," Bruce Fein, a Washington attorney and former Justice department official who worked on Clinton's impeachment, told Politico.

Impeachment process in the House

The process of impeachment — the first step in removing a president — takes place in the House of Representatives. Once a resolution declaring charges of impeachment is introduced in the House, the resolution is referred to a committee, usually the House Judiciary Committee, which investigates the charges. This investigation will determine whether the official in question has engaged in the "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors" stipulated in the Constitution.

If the committee determines by a majority vote that there are grounds for impeachment, it will draft a resolution laying out the articles of impeachment, which will be reported to the entire House of Representatives. The House will then debate and vote on the resolution, considering the articles of impeachment either individually or as a whole.

New members of Congress are sworn in as the House of Representatives convenes in Jan. 2017.
Source: 
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Should a majority of representatives vote to approve at least one of the articles of impeachment, the president, or other official, is officially considered to be impeached.

Senate trial

If an official is impeached, this does not mean they are removed from office. Rather, it means that the charges of impeachment are then referred to the U.S. Senate, who will officially try the charges.

The House of Representatives will first choose "managers" to present the impeachment charges to the Senate. These managers, the U.S. Senate website notes, will act as prosecutors in the Senate trial, which will take place in the Senate chamber. Senators will serve as both jury and judge in most impeachment trials; however, in the case of a presidential impeachment, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, would preside instead.

Two-thirds of Senators must vote in favor of impeachment in order for the official to be convicted. Officials are removed from office if convicted, and, the Senate website notes, there is no process to appeal the decision.

Who has been impeached?

More than 60 impeachment proceedings have been introduced in the House of Representatives, its website explains, but less than a third of them have ever resulted in actual impeachment charges. Of those, only eight federal judges — and no other officials — have ever been found guilty by the Senate and removed from office. 

If Trump is impeached as president, the House website notes, he will become the third U.S. president to earn that distinction, following Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. The first presidential impeachment resolution was introduced against President John Tyler by the Whigs, who accused the president of misusing his veto power, but the resolution was unsuccessful. 

While many associate President Richard Nixon with impeachment, he was not officially impeached. Though the process of impeachment was initiated by Congress following the Watergate scandal, and the articles of impeachment were approved by the House Judiciary Committee, Nixon resigned before the House could officially vote to impeach him.

Former President Richard Nixon
Source: 
Uncredited/AP

The first president to be impeached was Johnson in 1868. During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, PBS notes, Johnson clashed repeatedly with Republican legislators. Impeachment measures were passed by the House after Johnson formally defied the Tenure of Office Act, which required Congress to approve any dismissal of important government officials, by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. 

In addition to violating the act, PBS reports, the House charged Johnson with bringing into "disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach the Congress of the United States." The impeachment charges, however, were not approved by the Senate, who kept Johnson in office by a narrow margin of just one vote.

The second and most recent president to be impeached was Clinton, in 1998. Following his affair with staffer Monica Lewinsky and subsequent attempts to cover it up, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Ultimately, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, who kept him in office by a vote of 55-45 on the perjury charge and 50-50 on obstruction of justice.

Newspaper headlines reflect Bill Clinton's testimony regarding Monica Lewinsky
Source: 
Marty Lederhandler/AP

It's worth noting that Clinton's impeachment began with a sexual harassment lawsuit from before he assumed the presidency, brought by Paula Jones and centering on events that took place in 1991 — this suit led to revelations about his relationship with Lewinsky. This precedent could mean that Trump, who will enter the presidency plagued by sexual harassment allegations and open lawsuits for past infractions, will have to face consequences for his past actions while he's in the White House.

Whether Trump will join these presidents as the latest commander in chief to be impeached — or become the first to be removed from office — is now ultimately in Congress's hands. But at 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 20, the possibility of impeachment will officially exist.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Alison Durkee

Alison is a New York-based news writer at Mic. You can get in touch with her at adurkee@mic.com.

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