For most jobs, it’s understood that you can be fired, whether for crime, incompetence, or just poor performance. But what if your job happens to be the most powerful position in the country, or the world? That’s where impeachment comes in. Impeachment isn’t the same as actually removing someone from office. Like an indictment in criminal court, it’s only the formal accusation that launches a trial, which could end in conviction or acquittal. Originating in the United Kingdom, impeachment allowed Parliament to vote for removing a government official from office even without the king’s consent.
Although this was an important check on royal power, the king couldn’t be impeached because the monarch was considered the source of all government power. But for the founders of the American Republic, there was no higher authority beyond the people themselves. And so impeachment was adopted in the United States as a power of Congress applying to any civil officers, up to and including the president. Although demands for impeachment can come from any members of the public, only the House of Representatives has the power to actually initiate the process. It begins by referring the matter to a committee, usually the House Committee on Rules and the House Committee on the Judiciary.
These committees review the accusations, examine the evidence, and issue a recommendation. If they find sufficient grounds to proceed, the House holds a separate vote on each of the specific charges, known as Articles of Impeachment. If one or more passes by a simple majority, the official is impeached and the stage is set for trial. The actual trial that follows impeachment is held in the Senate. Selected members of the House, known as managers, act as the prosecution, while the impeached official and their lawyers present their defense. The Senate acts as both judge and jury, conducting the trial and deliberating after hearing all the arguments. If it’s the president or vice president being impeached, the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides. A conviction requires a supermajority of two-thirds and results in automatic removal from power.
Depending on the original charges, it can also disqualify them from holding office in the future and open them to standard criminal prosecution. So what exactly can get someone impeached? That’s a bit more complicated. Unlike in the United Kingdom, impeachment in the U.S. pits an elected legislature against other democratically elected members of government. Therefore, to prevent the process from being used as a political weapon, the Constitution specifies that an official can only be impeached for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. That still leaves a lot of room for interpretation, not to mention politics, and many impeachment trials have split along partisan lines.
But the process is generally understood to be reserved for serious abuses of power. The first official to be impeached was Tennesse Senator William Blount in 1797 for conspiring with Britain to cease the Spanish colony of Louisiana. Since then, the House has launched impeachment investigations about 60 times, but only 19 have led to actual impeachment proceedings. The eight cases that ended in a conviction and removal from office were all federal judges. And impeachment of a sitting president is even more rare.
Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 for attempting to replace Secretary of War Edwin Stanton without consulting the Senate. Over a century later, Bill Clinton was impeached for making false statements under oath during a sexual harassment trial. Both were ultimately acquitted when the Senate’s votes to convict fell short of the required two-thirds majority.
And contrary to popular belief, Richard Nixon was never actually impeached for the Watergate scandal. He resigned before it could happen knowing he would almost certainly be convicted. Theoretically, the U.S. government is already designed to prevent abuses of power, limiting different branches through a system of checks and balances, term limits, and free elections. But impeachment can be seen as an emergency brake for when these safeguards fail.