Even as the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump gets underway, there’s still considerable confusion about what exactly presidential impeachment means, how the process works, and what consequences Trump is likely to face. Since it’s only happened two previous times in U.S. history (to Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, with Richard Nixon avoiding a near-certain impeachment by resigning), it’s not the sort of thing you get a lot of detail on in high-school American history classes. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Impeachment?
Impeachment is to official misconduct what an indictment is to crime: a statement of charges leading to a trial. The procedure for congressional impeachment of Executive branch officials (including but not limited to the president) was spelled out in some detail in the U.S. Constitution, as the official House of Representatives history observes:
Impeachment comes from British constitutional history. The process evolved from the 14th century as a way for parliament to hold the king’s ministers accountable for their public actions. Impeachment, as Alexander Hamilton of New York explained in Federalist 65, varies from civil or criminal courts in that it strictly involves the “misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Individual state constitutions had provided for impeachment for “maladministration” or “corruption” before the U.S. Constitution was written. And the founders, fearing the potential for abuse of executive power, considered impeachment so important that they made it part of the Constitution even before they defined the contours of the presidency.
Impeachment is not, to be clear, the removal of corrupt presidents or other officials, but simply the adoption of charges by the House, triggering a trial in the Senate. So once the House passed articles of impeachment in December, Trump joined Johnson and Clinton on the list of impeached presidents; though Trump, like his predecessors, is likely to be acquitted by the Senate, the term still applies.
The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate to consummate an impeachment with removal from office, but the document is otherwise silent about procedures.
What Are Grounds for Impeaching a President?
Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution specifically mentions “treason” and “bribery” as grounds for impeachment, but it also stipulates that “other High Crimes and Misdemeanors” are sufficient. It’s important to understand that when the Constitution was adopted, the term “misdemeanors” had not assumed its later meaning as a type of criminal offense. According to the most common interpretation of this language, impeachment does not require the allegation of a crime, but simply some grave act or pattern of misconduct deemed by Congress as necessitating this radical remedy.
Under House rules and long-standing practice, the House lays out the grounds for impeachment, then holds a simple majority vote. If the articles of impeachment are approved, they’re then presented to the Senate for further action.
In 1868, the House approved 11 articles of impeachment against President Johnson, mostly revolving around his defiance of the (quite possibly unconstitutional) Tenure of Office Act, which restricted the president’s power to dismiss Cabinet members (the underlying “offense” was clearly Johnson’s efforts to obstruct congressional Reconstruction of the former Confederate States).
In 1998, the House approved just two articles of impeachment against Clinton: one alleged that he committed perjury in grand jury testimony when questioned about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, and the second alleged obstruction of justice to hide evidence in that case. It was a highly legalistic argument, which helped buttress the false public impression that without “crimes” there can be no impeachment.
Last month the U.S. House voted to impeach President Trump on two articles alleging grave misconduct in connection with his efforts to get the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of 2020 rival Joe Biden. The first article (which passed by a 230-197 vote, with two Democrats and no Republicans breaking ranks) addressed Trump’s abuse of power in seeking Ukraine’s help for his domestic political benefit. The second article (which passed 229-198) addressed his obstruction of Congress by refusing to cooperate with subpoenas issued for access to administration witnesses and documents.
As the Senate trial got underway this week, Trump’s legal team advanced an audacious argument in their response to the House brief outlining the case for impeachment. As New York’s Jonathan Chait explains:
According to its reasoning, a president can only be impeached for a literal criminal violation, the kind of crime for which you or I could be hauled off to the police station. He cannot be impeached for abusing his power.
One of multiple problems with this line of reasoning: last week the Government Accountability Office ruled that Trump withholding Ukraine aid violated the law.
What Are the Rules for the Senate Impeachment Trial?
The Constitution itself doesn’t say much about Senate impeachment trials of a president, other than requiring a two-thirds vote for removal from office, and stipulating that the chief justice of the United States will preside over the trial (presumably to remove the conflict of interest presented if the default presiding officer of the Senate, the vice president, oversaw a trial that could result in elevation to the presidency).
There are no constitutional or Senate provisions requiring a trial of any particular length or depth. Here is my explanation of the relevant provisions governing impeachment trials for presidents:
Regardless of how it begins or ends, the trial itself is governed by standing Senate rules, last modified in 1986. They are largely based on precedents set in the Andrew Johnson trial. The basic idea is that articles of impeachment are presented to the Senate by House impeachment managers, and are then disputed by counsel for the president, with senators observing but not becoming directly involved (other than by written questions submitted to one or both of the parties). Witnesses are called and cross-examined according to protocols and timelines adopted by the Senate just before the trial begins on a majority vote.
According to precedent, senators act like jurors, making no public statements on the proceeding until after their votes are cast (in the Clinton case, senators spoke before the vote in a closed-door session, with their remarks published in the Congressional Record after the vote). But there is no actual “gag order” on Senators prior to the trial itself, so when you hear some of them refusing to comment on the House impeachment inquiry or the underlying issues “because I may be a juror,” that’s not really true, though it does serve as a convenient excuse to dodge tricky questions.
The length of an impeachment trial is another highly variable issue. The Johnson impeachment trial in 1868 lasted from March 5 until May 16, when the Senate’s first crucial “test vote” on a catch-all article of impeachment failed by one vote. Ten days later the Senate voted predictably to acquit on two other articles, and subsequently voted for general acquittal and adjournment.
Clinton’s impeachment trial was more hurried: It began on January 7, 1999, when presiding officer Chief Justice William Rehnquist was sworn in, and ended on February 12, with Clinton’s easy acquittal on both articles (45 senators, all Republicans, voted for his guilt on the perjury article, with ten Republicans defecting; and 50 senators vote for the obstruction article, with five Republicans defecting).
Questions involving the scope of the trial and the witnesses and other evidence that can be admitted are generally established by an ad hoc resolution by the Senate itself. That means 51 senators (or a super-majority of 67 if the standing Senate rules have to be amended) can pretty much structure the trial as they choose.
One important aspect of the trial that is constrained by Senate rules is a ban on any stop-and-go schedule. Once the trial begins, the Senate must continue it six-days-a-week (Sundays are the only days off) until a verdict is rendered. Thus the Senate Democrats running for president are stuck in Washington silently listening to impeachment trial testimony when they need to be on the campaign trail.
What Are the Odds That Trump Is Removed From Office?
As developments in the House – concluding with every Republican voting against impeachment – showed, the odds of Trump being removed by the Senate range from “slim” to “none.” It would take only 34 of 54 Senate Republicans to acquit Trump, and the idea that 20 senators from a party dominated by this president like a Bronze Age warlord would defy the MAGA base and try to defenestrate him on the brink of an epochal presidential election is not terribly credible. Early hopes by Democrats that investigations would gradually erode Trump’s partisan invincibility the way Watergate gradually eroded Nixon’s haven’t borne fruit. If, somehow, the witnesses stopped by the White House from testifying in the House show up during the Senate trial, it’s possible there will be a “smoking gun.” But there’s no reason to assume it.
So How Is This All Likely to End?
Assuming that the Senate votes to acquit Trump, this saga will end with the 2020 presidential election, and with Trump’s ejection from office or his triumphal reelection. It’s possible, of course, that a second-term Trump could get himself impeached again (indeed, some Democratic opponents of impeaching Trump thought this option should be saved for later, when his conduct would likely become far worse). But most likely his impeachment will reinforce the sense that the 2020 election is a high-stakes referendum on the sprawling corruption, norm-breaking, and racist and sexist attitudes of the 45th president.
This piece has been updated to reflect ongoing developments in the impeachment story.
More on the Trump-Ukraine Scandal
- Trump’s Impeachment Trial and the Verdict of History
- Trump Fires Impeachment Witnesses Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland
- Trump Impeachment Hearing Schedule: What’s Next?