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What is impeachment?



What is Impeachment?

Impeachment is a rare political process used to accuse a President, Vice President or other civil officers of misconduct and is defined in the US Constitution. The reasons for impeachment include Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors (violations of the public trust).

Impeachment in the Constitution

Since the Constitution defines impeachment, what does what does it say? Let’s go through it. For clarity I used because of the handy searchable index but feel free to use any version. FYI, the funny spelling is original to the text.


“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The preamble states the basic intentions constitution, which is to establish peace and liberty through law and justice. (It’s just good practice to start with the preamble.)

Power of Impeachment - Article I Section 2 Clause 5

“5: The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

This is easy, plainly says it’s up to the House of Representatives to impeach.

Reasons - Article II Section 4

“Section 4

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.”

This is a whole section unto itself in Article II and it’s also where it starts to get a little tricky because the langage so vague. While Treason is defined in the Constitution by Article III Section 3. Bribery as well as High Crimes and Misdemeanors are not defined in the Constitution but had a clear common law meaning at the time the Constitution was written. Bribery is now well covered federal statue and is a crime.

Bribery is defined by law as “Corrupt solicitation, acceptance, or transfer of value in exchange for official action. Violators may be prosecuted under federal statute 18 U.S.C. 201 - Bribery

High Crimes and Misdemeanors however, has a very loose historic English Common Law definition dating back to the impeachment of the Earl of Suffolk in 1388. It’s one of the greatest American debates, but basically it means today, gross misconduct in office that violates the public trust, which includes but is not limited to illegal conduct.

Senate Trial - Article I Section 3 Clause 6

“6: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.”

This part establishes the basic framework of an impeachment trial. The Senate becomes a courtroom, senators become the jury with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding as the judge if the President is the subject of the impeachment. Requires a vote of a two-thirds majority for conviction and expulsion.

Penalties - Article I Section 3 Clause 7

“7: Judgment in Cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

This explains that the impeachment process is just expulsion from public service. If the civil officer did commit a crime, they are still subject to criminal laws and further prosecution.

Due Process - Article III Section 2 Clause 3

“3: The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.“

This part makes it a little more clear that impeachment trials are not subject to the same rules nor require the same due process as criminal proceedings. The impeachment trial of Civil Officers uses a similar process as our legal system but not the same process as the Senate creates and votes on its own rules even for impeachment.

Playbook of Impeachment:

This is the very basic order of operations of how the impeachment process moves through Congress,

  • Triggering event(s)
  • Official Impeachment Inquiry - fact finding, depositions, hearings, reports etc.
    • This part is done like everything in Congress, through the committee process.
    • Any committee can submit whatever evidence they choose to the House Judiciary Committee for the consideration of Articles of Impeachment.
  • House Judiciary Committee drafts Articles of Impeachment and votes by simple majority to move the articles to the full House for a vote. (referred to a markup)
  • The Speaker of the House then decides to take a full vote of the House on the Articles of Impeachment, requiring a simple majority to pass. (218 votes)
  • If the vote is successful, the civil officer (the President) has been officially Impeached. (Accused by the House of conduct that violates the public trust)
  • House of Representatives then appoints Case Managers to bring the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate.
  • The Senate Majority Leader then accepts the Articles of Impeachment and relays the next steps towards the Impeachment Trial which decides wether or not to remove the civil officer in this case the President, from elected office.
  • When the Impeachment trial is to begin, the Senate first votes on the rules of the proceedings. (they literally make up their own rules)
  • The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court comes to the Senate to act as an impartial judge. The members of the Senate become the jury and the House case managers make the case against the President.
  • At the end of the trial the Senate votes to convict and remove or acquit. To remove requires a two-thirds supermajority (67 votes).
  • If the Civil Officer (the President) is convicted and removed, may be a barred for life from holding future public office and may still be subject to criminal and civil proceedings related to their misconduct in office.

And that’s basically how the Impeachment process plays out.

Need More?

Curl up and have a good read

The Impeachment Process in the House of Representatives

Senate Rules and Procedures

Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment

The Federalist Papers : No. 65

The Impeachment of President Donald J. Trump
The Impeachment of President Donald J. Trump
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