Skip to main content

How Does Impeachment Actually Work? Just, You Know, In Case.

Donald Trump rants at reporters outside the White House.

The Trump administration has been in the news for all sorts of scandals, in fact, there have been scandals from before he was even “elected.” (Yes, Donny, there was collusion). The ways Donald Trump has abused power and disgraced the office of the president are almost too numerous to list, but this week’s newest bombshell: that Trump preemptively tried to interfere with the next election by bullying the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his Son is a new level of brazen badness. He used the power of the presidency to intimidate a foreign power to go after a political rival. That’s really bad. People have been calling for impeachment since day one of the orange administration, but what exactly is impeachment and what are the odds of it actually succeeding?

Impeachment comes from the United States Constitution, Article II, section 4. It says simply: “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.” The Constitution also outlines that only the House of Representatives has the power to vote for impeachment to begin, but only the senate shall hold impeachment trials. The only consequence of impeachment is removal from office and the prohibition from ever holding office again.

What does that all mean? Simply that the house votes on what are called articles of impeachment, that outline what the impeached individual did (in this case, a president) and the Senate holds a trial on those accusations. The senate votes on the charges, just like a jury and if enough senators vote yes, the President is removed. It sounds simple, but it’s a fraught procedure and it has never, in the history of the United States, actually been successfully used.

The first president to be subject to impeachment proceedings was Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln in the office of president after Lincoln’s assassination. His impeachment was based on conflicts over how to handle the former confederate states and his actions following, but he was eventually acquitted. It still did’t work out for him: Johnson couldn’t even win his party’s presidential primary after that and was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant.

It took another century for the shadow of impeachment to arise again, this time over Richard Nixon. Congress voted to begin impeachment proceeding  when it was revealed that he had been complicit in the burglary of the Democratic Nation Committee in the Watergate hotel in an attempt to get an edge in the election. It was a massive scandals, but Nixon resigned before an impeachment trial could begin.

bill clinton, james patterson, book, me too, #metoo, monica lewinsky, interview

The next time congress moved to impeach a sitting president was against Bill Clinton, who was impeached for committing perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly interfering in investigations of his sexual harassment and extra-marital affairs, but he, like Johnson, was acquitted.

The ways in which Donald Trump has abused his power certainly rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. Like Clinton, he has attempted to obstruct justice. Like Nixon, he has attempted (and succeeded) in undermining the democratic process. Like Johnson he has flouted congress and the law. He certainly deserves impeachment, and the House has started some proceedings towards that end, but they have been incredibly difficult already. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she won’t pursue impeachment.

It’s possible that Pelosi’s hesitancy has everything to do with the history and procedure we’ve just discussed. Impeachment has never been successful and even if the House votes to impeach, it means a trial in the Senate – a body still controlled by Republicans who have no sense of duty to the truth or the Constitution at this point. Though no President in history has done more to warrant impeachment than Trump, such proceedings could make him into a martyr, inflame his base and then still fail. However, doing what is right is rarely the same as doing what is safe or easy, and our elected representatives should theoretically be all about upholding the law and holding criminals and tyrants accountable. Impeachment might not succeed, but it must, at this point, be considered.


(image: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!

The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue:

Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.