So, Exactly What Is Impeachment? All About Impeachment

1. Who can be impeached in the U.S.?

The president, the vice-president, and any elected official can be impeached. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution of the United States establishes it.

2. What is impeachment?

Painted portrait of John Madison. He has white long hair and wears an elegant black coat.
Founding Father John Madison. He believed it was indispensable that the Constitution included the possibility of impeachment. Painting by John Vanderlyn (Photo: Public domain)

It is a way of removing an elected official from office. It is like firing them.

The president can be fired if he/she is seriously misbehaving.

James Madison, one of the writers of the Constitution of the United States, said it was “indispensable” to include the figure of impeachment in the Constitution. That it was a way to protect the citizens against “the incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.”

Since the elected official was chosen in democratic elections, he/she can only be “fired” if both chambers of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) agree to it.

The impeachment process can be likened to charging an official with an offense. In the United States, a normal person gets investigated by the police. If they are charged with a crime, his or her case goes to trial.

But someone that holds high office is investigated by the House of Representatives. If the House finds that the official has committed an offense, it charges the official, aka impeaches the official. Then, the official goes to trial; not in a normal courthouse, but in the Senate. And if the official is found guilty, he or she is removed from office.

3. What offenses can lead to impeachment?

The Constitution of the United States names 3 offenses that can lead to an impeachment. They are treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Painting. One man signs a document while George Washington and another man stand beside him. They are in a luxurious room full of men. All of them wear 18th century clothes and white wigs.
Three offenses can lead to impeachment: treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors. “The signing of the Constitution” by Howard Chandler. (Photo: US Capitol/Public domain)

Treason and bribery are more straightforward, but ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ is purposefully vague. It is a technical legal term. The Founding Fathers could not foresee every act of misconduct and name it, so they used this umbrella term.

Judges have been impeached and removed from office for corruption, constant drunkenness, tax evasion, profiting from their position… All those offenses fell under “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Other offenses engulfed by the term are, for example, dishonesty, intimidation, misuse of public funds, negligence, perjury, dereliction of duty, unbecoming conduct.

Many of those are not crimes. Yet the Founding Fathers believed that someone in high office should behave impeccably. They have to behave much better than the common citizen because they are in a position of great power.

Like the French (and the Bible) said: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

But the description of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is so vague, that when the Judiciary Committee was looking into whether to impeach President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, they first spent weeks studying and clarifying which, exactly, are impeachable offenses. They ended up writing a 64-page report on the subject.

4. How does the impeachment process work in the U.S.?

Photo of a white dome that has four floors and a bronze statue at the top. The white dome contrasts the dark blue of the evening sky.
There are no fixed steps for an impeachment. The Capitol’s dome, Washington. (Photo: Diliff/CCBYSA3.0)

1. The House of Representatives launches an investigation on the elected official, in this case, the president. It can begin as an unofficial investigation. Usually, the House’s Judiciary Committee is in charge of the investigation. The investigative team interviews witnesses and gathers information.

2. The investigating team may find that a serious offense has indeed taken place. In that case, the House Judiciary Committee votes on whether to present charges against the president.

3. Now, the Committee must choose the charges (aka articles of impeachment) against the president.

4. The articles of impeachment are presented to the whole House of Representatives. The House must vote on each article. If the majority votes that the president should go to trial, then he/she is formally charged, aka impeached.

5. Members of the House present the charges to the Senate. The House’s role is over. Now it is the Senate’s turn to act.

6. When the Senate receives the impeachment, they must begin a trial. The trial takes place within the Senate. The Chief Justice of the United States presides over the trial. Some senators will act as prosecutors, others will be on the defense team. The rest of the senators attend the trial.

Like in any trial, both sides, prosecution and defense, will investigate, gather evidence, and call witnesses. The process can take several months.

7. Once the trial is over, it is time for the senators to vote. If 2/3 of the Senate votes “guilty,” the president will be removed from office.

There is no fixed way to go about the impeachment, though. Each chamber, House and Senate, can decide how to go about their duty. The Constitution states that each house “may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.”

That is why sometimes the Judiciary Committee starts an informal impeachment inquiry, others a formal inquiry. And others yet, they are not even the ones that carry out the initial inquiries.

In President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, for example, the Attorney General’s office was in charge of the initial investigation. They handed over their report to the Judiciary Committee. The Committee simply chose the charges and voted on whether to recommend impeachment to the House.

5. Can the U.S. president be sent to prison?

The impeachment process can only remove the president from office and refrain him/her from holding office again.

After the Senate votes to remove the official from office, they can vote again. This time they are voting to keep him/her from serving again.

That is it for the impeachment process and the Senate’s role. Impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one. It can only fire and ban the official.

But once the official is removed and returns to civil life, he/she can be criminally charged through the usual channels. If they are thought to be guilty of, say, corruption or misuse of public funds, they can go to another trail.

This time, the trial will take place in a courthouse, like that of a normal citizen. And if found guilty, he/she will be sent to prison.

6. How many people have been impeached in the United States?

19 officials have been impeached in the U.S.:
– 15 judges
2 presidents
– 1 cabinet secretary (William Belknap, 1876)
– 1 senator (William Blount, 1797. More on him below).

Of them, only 8, all judges, were found guilty and were removed from office by the Senate.

Of the 8 removed, 3 were prohibited from holding office again.

Read next: These are the U.S. presidents that were impeached and why

7. Who was the first person to be impeached in the United States?

Painted portrait of Blount. He wears a white wig, a dark blue open coat, and a white shirt.
Senator William Blount conspired with Great Britain to start a war with Spain. (Photo: Tennessee Portrait Project/Public domain)

The first person that was impeached in the United States was Senator William Blount of North Carolina. He was one of the signers of the Constitution.

Senator Blount was a landowner. At the time, the states of Florida and Louisiana belonged to Spain. And that went against Blount’s financial interests. So he conspired with Great Britain to wage war against Spain.

The conspiracy did not sit well with Congress when they found out. And Blount was impeached in 1799.

But then, the Senate dismissed the impeachment realizing that the process does not apply to senators, as they are not elected officials. The Senate can simply vote to expel one of their own without involving the House of Representatives. And they had already expelled Blount, who had fled to Tennessee.

8. Do other countries have impeachment?

Black and white photo of a statue. It is a marble bust of an older man.
Cato the Elder was a censor during Roman times. This bust was thought to be of Cato. (Photo: Public domain)

Yes, many other countries have impeachment. The Founding Fathers of the United States borrowed the concept from English Law.

Yet, England did not invent impeachment, either. Ancient Greece and Rome already had it.

In Rome, there were specially appointed officials, the censors, whose job was to control that senators acted properly. If they did not, the censors could remove them from office. Our word “censorship” comes from them.

Some of the countries that have impeachment nowadays are Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Romania, Norway, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and South Africa.

9. Which presidents have been impeached and removed from office in other countries?

In the 21st century, at least 8 presidents from around the world left their office after being impeached:

Photo of Fujimori descending from a plane. He wears a dark blue suit with a tie.
President Fujimori of Peru fled to Japan, his parent’s country, when he was being impeached. (Photo: Karen Sanders/Public domain)

Joseph Estrada from the Philippines. He was impeached in November 2000 and resigned.

Alberto Fujimori from Peru. He was also impeached in November 2000. Fujimori was removed from office and fled to Japan, his parents’ birth country.

Abdurrahman Wahid from Indonesia. He was impeached in July 2001 and was removed from office.

Rolandas Paksas from Lithuania. He was impeached in April 2004 and was removed from office.

Fernando Lugo from Paraguay. He was impeached in June 2012 and was removed from office.

(Lugo’s first language is Guarani. You may also like: These are the 8 most spoken languages in the Americas -and you won’t guess half of them.)

Viktor Yanukovych from Ukraine. Viktor was impeached in February 2014 and fled the country.

Dilma Rousseff from Brazil. She was impeached in August 2016 and was removed from office.

Park Geun-hye from South Korea. She was impeached in March 2017 and was removed from office.

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2019-10-21
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