What on Earth is an impeachment? Mosaic’s guide to what’s going on

impeachment illustration
Senior Reporter Evan Tridone breaks down impeachment for Mosaic’s readers.

Impeachment: It is a powerful word that House Democrats are currently rallying around, while some Republicans are rebelling against the notion of it. With all of the buzz in the news over the U.S. House of Representatives formally opening an impeachment inquiry to investigate potential wrongdoing by President Donald Trump, it is useful to know what it all means.

Mosaic is tipping our toes into the cesspool of Washington politics so that you don’t have to. We’re here to help.

Impeachment is the process and action of charging a sitting president with a criminal offense. It is a common misconception that impeachment removes a sitting president from office. Impeachment cannot remove a president, but it brings up the potential for removal.

In the United States Constitution, it is stated that “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.” Once the House of Representatives has passed the articles of impeachment, which enumerates the alleged crime or crimes of a sitting government official, the official has been impeached.

In order for a president to be impeached, they must be first investigated by the House of Representatives. During this investigation, the House acts as a detective, searching for evidence. If the House deems it necessary, the impeachment vote takes place to charge the president with whatever crime stated.

Once the articles of impeachment have been passed by a simple majority of House voters, and the president or other government officials have been charged, the Senate holds a trial. This trial would be presided by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the members of the Senate must reach a two-thirds majority in order to remove the president from office. This has never happened in the United States.

Only two presidents in U.S history have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Andrew Johnson was impeached over his removal of the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Bill Clinton was impeached over lying to Congress regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Richard Nixon was almost impeached, but resigned from the presidency before he could be formally impeached.

The only consequence of being impeached is having a trial held in the Senate. Since an individual can be charged with a crime, but not be found guilty, the president would not be assumed to be guilty at this time. Being impeached simply means that you are being charged with a crime. According to a Nixon-era U.S. Justice Department policy, a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime without being impeached.

Although possible, it is still up in the air whether or not Trump will be impeached. Congress is still investigating, and has not announced a vote on the articles of impeachment yet. If Congress announces this, it will be likely that Trump is impeached, since Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives.

It is nearly impossible, at this point, for Trump to be removed from office. Due to the partisan nature of politics, it is extremely likely that the Senate vote would go along party lines, giving way for Trump to be found not guilty. This was the case with Clinton, with Democrats voting along party lines to find him not guilty.

A president being impeached is a serious matter, but it should not be mistaken with removal from office. An impeachment is a statement alleging a sitting government official with a crime. While not the best thing in the world, it does not mean the party charged with the crime is guilty. If Trump were to be removed from office, Vice President Mike Pence would take over as president. There is also concern that Pence could potentially be implicated in the scandals currently burdening the White House, and in the event that Pence also be removed from office, the presidency would legally be taken by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

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