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What does impeachment actually mean?

By Lauren AguirreAugust 22, 2017

Trump press conference
President Donald Trump speaks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images

Discussion of the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump has been following news regarding his administration and business practices for several months. Most recently, a Democratic congressman has announced plans to file articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives. However, not many people truly understand what impeachment means and how it really works. Impeachment is a process laid out in the Constitution as a check on presidential power, but it has only really been put to use twice in all of American history.

First, it's important to note that impeachment does not automatically equal removal from office. When Congress votes to impeach a president, it begins a process that may or may not end in the president being forced to leave. Only two presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was never impeached. However, he was the only president to ever resign from office.

 

First, it's important to note that impeachment does not automatically equal removal from office. 

That said, what does impeachment really mean? According to the Constitution, a vote in the House of Representatives is required to formally impeach a president. If the vote passes, then the president has been formally charged. He will then be tried in the Senate to determine whether or not he is guilty. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is constitutionally required to preside over the trial.

The president can be convicted only by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. Once that happens, he will be removed from office and banned from ever holding any another elected office in the United States. He can also be held liable and "subject to indictment, trial, judgement, and punishment, according to the law" for his actions that resulted in his removal. After the president is removed, the vice president would be sworn into office in his place, according to the line of succession.

If the president is not convicted, then things essentially return to normal — at least in process. However, there would probably be many political implications for a present who was impeached.

Clinton was impeached, but not convicted or removed from office. After the trial, his administration faced a few hurdles. He struggled with a low approval rating, which gave him much less leverage with Congress. However, it wasn't really devastating to his administration. Many on the left viewed the entire proceeding as a political move. (Clinton's impeachment had come about after a famous stained dress was uncovered, after all.) The vote to impeach passed under the pretense that the president lying about an affair to the public was morally corrupt.

But could President Trump be impeached? He could. All it takes is a vote in the House of Representatives. Still, with Republicans in the majority, it's unlikely a vote would pass. Unless Trump's response to the events in Charlottesville changed a lot of minds on the conservative side. Impeachment might become more of a possibility if Republicans end up losing their majority in Congress.

However, impeachment isn’t really taken lightly. There would likely have to be definitive proof of wrongdoing before a vote would even be considered. That said, allegations of colluding with Russia to win an election or using the federal government to increase profits for his businesses are much more serious accusations than lying publicly about an affair. These are uncharted waters and no one really knows what’s going to happen.