With the recent high profile impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, and the upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate, there are many misconceptions floating around. People have a lot of questions about the whole process. It doesn’t help that much of what is happening is extremely rare, or even entirely unprecedented in United States history. The process can also be very confusing, and the history of impeachment, as limited as it is, has been rather muddled. In today’s article, we will go over 10 important things you should know about the United States impeachment process.
10. The Senate Trial Is Actually Presided Over By The Chief Justice Of The US Supreme Court
As we have been watching the senate gear up for the eventual trial of President Trump, to decide whether or not to remove him from office for the charge of abusing power and obstructing congress, there has been a lot of talk about how Mitch McConnell is in charge of the proceedings, and what he plans to do with it. However, the truth is actually a whole lot more complicated.
The trial, in order to avoid complete political partisanship, is actually run by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who is currently John Roberts. Now, he does not set the rules for the trial, but he could influence them, and he would have a lot of pull and influence with Republican senators. If he wanted what he thought were more fair rules, it is not outside of the realm of possibility that he could get enough support from both sides, and use the majority to set rules that he wants. This doesn’t mean he gets to just do whatever he wants, but the point is that the trial doesn’t start until rules are agreed upon and set by all involved, and the senate majority leader does not preside over the trial.
9. Three Presidents Have Been Impeached, But None Have Ever Been Removed In A Trial
Many people are very confused about the history of impeachment, and who has or has not been impeached. Many people think that impeachment amounts to removal, and some think that presidents who have not been impeached actually have been. So, we will clear up the record on this a bit.
There have been, to date, three presidents who have been impeached. The first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives was President Andrew Johnson, the man who took over after President Lincoln was assassinated. However, he was not removed from office by the senate. Then, a long time later, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the house, and also not removed by the senate. Finally, just a short while ago, President Trump was impeached by the house, but his final fate in the senate is as of time of this publication unclear. The USA has never removed a president from office after an impeachment, though, so the odds are more in President Trump’s favor than not. But at this point, it really could still go one way or another.
8. Nixon Was Not Actually Impeached; He Resigned Before The Vote Even Occurred
Another belief many have about impeachment is the common misconception about President Richard Nixon. Known as the most corrupt president in the history books, his final days leaving office are famous, as is his proclamation that he was not a crook. For this reason, most people believe that Nixon was indeed impeached by the house, and some even think he was finally removed by the senate. However, Nixon actually decided to resign before the house, much less the senate, could formally take a vote against him.
It is believed by many that he was impeached, as there were almost two years of impeachment hearings before the vote was actually scheduled, and it was pretty clear he was going to be impeached, and almost certainly removed by the senate. By resigning early, he blunted a lot of the worst political anger against him (possibly in the hopes of avoiding any punishment), and also avoided the public embarrassment of being the first United States president to be forced out of office. Regardless, despite his best attempts at saving face, most people believe he was impeached and do consider him to have been forced out, even if he chose to resign first.
7. The House Withholding The Articles Of Impeachment Was Unprecedented
Essentially, the house passed the articles of impeachment, but they did not immediately send them over to the senate. Now, the reason given for this was that the senate had not yet decided on rules, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi believed that Senate Majority Leader McConnell might try to quickly vote for rules that allow an incredibly short trial with no witnesses, and shut it all down right away.
She contended that she was holding out until they decided on rules, and in the meantime is still investigating President Trump even further to build her case to the American people. While most legal scholars contend that there actually isn’t anything unconstitutional about Speaker Pelosi withholding the articles of impeachment, there were enough who disagreed with her move that there was a serious effort, before she even sent the articles of impeachment over, to pass a dismissal of the articles before they even arrived, thus preventing a trial from even occurring. Unfortunately for those who wanted to try out this also unprecedented move, Pelosi went ahead and sent the articles of impeachment to the senate, ending that particular controversy.
6. Senators Have To Take An Oath To Be Impartial Jurors — This Could Cause Controversy
Some senators have completely forgotten their oaths of office, and how the whole impeachment thing is supposed to work, and could end up making things into a huge mess. The fact of the matter is that when impeachment passes the house and reaches the senate, a “trial” of sorts is held; not to decide to punish the president for a crime, but to decide if he needs to be removed from office. Senators, when taking part in this trial, are supposed to be taking the part of jurors, which means they are supposed to be impartial. In fact, they take an oath of impartiality before the trial starts, which could make for some interesting legal challenges.
Some senators, such as Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell, have already made it clear they plan to vote no on removal before even seeing any evidence, don’t plan to allow witnesses, and are against holding anything that could be counted as a real trial. This could allow for legal challenges from the Democrats, who could ask Chief Justice Roberts to remove said senators from the proceedings for violating their oaths. The Chief Justice may be a Republican-leaning individual (and therefore some might believe he’d lean toward taking the Republican side in the impeachment hearings), but he is also a man of honor who greatly believes that all rules of law and processes should be respected and done right.
He could hypothetically have no choice but to at least allow a majority vote to go forward for removal of certain senators from the proceedings, if a challenge was made. And while many think this may only apply to Republican senators, that is not necessarily the case. While they have not been as vocal or obvious about it, there are also a handful of Democratic senators who have been a little too open about how they plan to vote, before the actual trial rules have even been set. More than likely, though, considering both sides would start challenging senators from the other side and trying to get them disqualified, we would probably see a truce where they all just dropped the whole thing.
5. A President Could Be Acquitted, And Then Impeached Yet Again
Many people want to see McConnell quickly push through an acquittal, as he has promised, as they believe this will end the whole thing, and we can move on to President Trump going about the business of his administration. However, the fact of the matter is that the senate acquitting him on these charges, does not mean that the whole thing is over at all. The House of Representatives can actually impeach him any number of times, and there is really nothing that anyone can do to stop them.
Now, some might wonder if the double jeopardy law might apply. Well, for starters, the Democrats would almost certainly be bringing new articles of impeachment with different charges — which would make double jeopardy irrelevant as that stops you from being tried for the same thing twice. But if they had new evidence, they could easily go with similar charges yet again. (The reason being that impeachment and the subsequent trial are not criminal proceedings.) Even if the reason for the impeachment is something criminal, whether they will be punished for the crime or not in that regard will be decided later by the courts. The only punishment for impeachment is removal from office, and possibly a bar from future runs for office.
4. Any Civil Officer Of The United States Can Be Impeached… Almost
When it comes to impeachment, many people already know that very few presidents have ever been impeached, and can name which ones, but few know much about its use for removal of people from office outside of the presidency. Some people may have heard it being floated as a way to remove Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but probably don’t know just how much it can be used. The actual written terms in the Constitution state that any civil officer of the United States can be impeached, and this has largely been interpreted by the courts to mean anyone who has power on a regular basis to make governmental decisions, however small, without first having to consult another person.
Now, while this can arguably lead to the ability to impeach anyone from the president to a county clerk, there is a fairly clear precedent that you cannot actually impeach United States senators, or members of congress. Only one senator was ever impeached, but he was expelled from the senate before his trial could be held, and later the senate decided that they did not have the authority to give him an impeachment trial. Now, this does not mean that they felt they were in the wrong to expel him from the senate. While you may not be able to impeach members, both bodies of congress, the house and the senate, have it in their rules that they can expel members with a 2/3rd’s majority vote.
3. Impeachment Is Essentially Just an Indictment
Many people are deeply confused about what impeachment even is, and this was no more obvious than when the impeachment vote passed, and quite a few disappointed Democratic-leaning or Trump-disliking people posted on Facebook that they had just learned that day that being impeached doesn’t mean you actually have to leave office. The truth is that impeachment can best be compared to a criminal indictment, except instead of charging them with a crime, you are charging them with misconduct in office on a level that warrants removal. And, in order to be impeached by the house, a simple majority is all that is required.
Now, some may wonder why more presidents have not been impeached if a simple majority is all that’s needed, and the reason is because actual removal in the senate, which is like a trial to decide if the indictment was warranted, requires a 2/3rds majority, which is an incredibly high bar to achieve. This means that the house knows the president probably won’t be removed, and then they will face a political backlash. So unless they think what the president did was so bad they must at least make a statement, or there is an actual realistic chance of a successful senate vote (or both), they won’t bother to hold an impeachment vote. And, for those who saw the rather strange ceremony where Pelosi handed out pens to her “Impeachment Managers” and wondered what exactly their roles are, the best description would be to say that they are sort of like a team of prosecutors for the trial.
2. Under Certain Conditions, An Impeached President Cannot Run For Office Again
If President Trump were to be put through a fair trial, and the senate decided to vote in a 2/3rds majority to remove him from office (which is 67 of 100 senators), many wonder what’s next. While he would of course be removed from office, some think that there is an actual criminal element involved, and that punishments could be involved, but not really — at least not the kind of punishments you might think. Working within the system, impeachment and the subsequent trial are not a criminal trial — they are only to decide the fitness for office of the individual. Any criminal charges that people think should be levied, even if they were related to the actions a president was being impeached for, would be brought against him later by the appropriate state and federal authorities. Congress would have nothing to do with it.
Now, because it isn’t actually a criminal trial, this means the only real consequence of being voted out is that you are voted out of office and have to now leave. Some people believe that it is a consequence that you can now no longer run for office (even dog catcher), but this is also inaccurate. If the senate were to vote to remove the president, they would then hold a separate vote to decide if he could still run for future office. It is theoretically possible that the senate could vote to remove him from office, but still allow him to run for president again.
1. Once Impeached, Even If Acquitted By The Senate, He Cannot Be Pardoned (If Criminal)
Many people who support President Trump have been talking about how they want a speedy “acquittal” and that they figure once a senate trial is done, he cannot be impeached anymore, it’s all over, and he can get on with being president. However, even if the impeachment is shut down, that doesn’t mean all of this is over at all, or that there aren’t still consequences.
The House, as we mentioned earlier, could go ahead and pass new articles of impeachment for yet a different offense, even if the senate already chose not to remove him over the others. Just being acquitted in a really short, to the point trial, wouldn’t mean the end of political attacks on the president’s job. But more importantly, there is a little known clause in the president’s pardoning powers that states that the president doesn’t have the power to pardon impeached individuals. Now, theoretically, this could be taken to mean a future president couldn’t pardon President Trump for crimes, but this clause has never been tested and some might argue it wouldn’t apply if the impeachment didn’t lead to a successful trial, so perhaps it wouldn’t hold up as some scholars think it would. However, whether it would hold up or not, it is possible Nixon’s fear of this clause is why he resigned before the impeachment vote, even though many of his advisors thought he could beat it in the senate, as some of the alleged actions he was being impeached for certainly were criminal, and that would have followed him after he left office.