Everything You Need to Know About Impeachment: QuickTake Q&A

How to Impeach a President

Impeachment talk is in the air in Washington. That doesn’t mean lawmakers are going to act, and they almost certainly won’t act soon. But reports that President Donald Trump asked FBI director James Comey to halt an investigation, before firing him, have led some legal scholars and former prosecutors to argue that Trump’s actions are reaching impeachment-level. The Republicans who control Congress, and even most Democrats, aren’t yet ready to proclaim that Trump committed the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that would warrant removing him from office. But the latest turn of events has many people brushing up on how the process works.

1. What are grounds for impeachment?

The U.S. Constitution says the president, vice president and "all civil officers" -- which has been construed to include judges and members of a president’s cabinet -- "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The key phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" doesn’t necessarily mean criminal conduct. As Congress has defined it through the years, it includes exceeding or abusing the powers of the presidency, misusing the office for improper purpose or gain, or other "behavior incompatible with the function and purpose of the office," according to the Congressional Research Service.

2. Who decides?

Impeachment proceedings begin in the U.S. House of Representatives. Individual lawmakers can introduce impeachment resolutions like ordinary legislation, or the entire House can vote to authorize an inquiry into whether impeachment is warranted. Either way, the question would normally go to the House Judiciary Committee, which can hold hearings before voting whether to send one or more articles of impeachment -- formal written charges -- to the full House. Any article approved by a majority of the House goes to the Senate.

3. What then?

In one of the more unusual spectacles in American politics, the 100 members of the Senate become the jury in a trial, with some members of the House functioning as prosecutors and the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding (if the accused is the president). Witnesses are called, and evidence submitted, with House impeachment managers and counsel for the accused giving opening and closing statements. If two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, vote to convict, the official is ordered removed from office.

4. How often has this happened?

The House has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times, according to its historian’s office, and voted to impeach 15 federal judges, one senator, one cabinet secretary and two presidents -- Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Eight judges were convicted and removed from office.

5. How many presidents have been removed by impeachment?

Technically speaking, none. Johnson, impeached by the House for firing the secretary of war, survived because the Senate fell just one vote short of a two-thirds majority to remove him. Fifty senators voted to remove Clinton for obstruction of justice, and 45 voted to remove him for perjury, also shy of the two-thirds majority. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 when it became clear he would be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee had approved three articles of impeachment accusing him of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress, for his role in covering up the politically motivated break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate office building.

6. Will Trump be impeached?

It’s far too early to say. The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the criminal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign relieves some of the pressure on lawmakers to act quickly. That FBI probe, along with congressional inquiries, could develop the information Congress would need before impeaching (or clearing) the president. Among the threshold questions: whether Trump committed an actual crime, obstruction of justice, when he allegedly asked Comey to drop a criminal investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn.

7. What are the odds?

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, in a full-page ad in the May 17 edition of the Guardian newspaper, puts the odds of the House voting to impeach Trump before 2021 at 2 to 1.

8. What would happen if Trump were removed from office?

Vice President Mike Pence would automatically be elevated to the presidency. He would then appoint a vice president, subject to a majority vote in both houses of Congress. In this very hypothetical scenario, a President Pence could himself run twice for re-election, in 2020 and 2024, were he to succeed Trump after Jan. 20, 2019, or halfway through Trump’s term. Oh, and there’s this: Unless the Senate voted separately to disqualify Trump from public office, he could, legally, run again.

9. Didn’t impeaching Trump come up before the Comey furor?

Yes. Some of his fiercest critics have discussed impeachment virtually from the moment Trump took office in January. One online petition, which claimed almost 855,000 signatures as of Feb. 15, says Trump’s "personal and business holdings in the United States and abroad present unprecedented conflicts of interest," and that some violate the U.S. Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, which prohibits a president (or other U.S. official) from taking any payment or present from a foreign state.

10. Could Trump be removed any other way?

Trump’s opponents also have cited the 25th amendment to the Constitution. It provides that a president can be removed if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet determines he or she is "unable to discharge the powers and duties" of the office. If the president contests the finding, and the vice president and cabinet persist, Congress can order the president’s removal by a two-thirds vote in both chambers. This method of removing a president has never been used.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Paula Dwyer

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