How does impeachment work? 7 key questions about removing a US president OLD

Oliver O'Connell
Donald Trump brandishes a copy of the Washington Post following his impeachment acquittal (Getty Images)
Donald Trump brandishes a copy of the Washington Post following his impeachment acquittal (Getty Images)

House Democrats formally introduced a pair of resolutions with the end goal of removing Donald Trump from office in the final days of his presidency following the assault on the Capitol by rioters loyal to the president.

Democratic Congressmen David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and Ted Lieu of California — all members of the House Judiciary Committee — immediately entered their single-article impeachment resolution into the record when the House convened on Monday.

The president is charged with "incitement of insurrection" accusing Mr Trump of encouraging last Wednesday’s violence that led to the deaths of five people.

What is impeachment?

The founders of the United States feared presidents abusing their powers, so they included in the Constitution a process for removing one from office.

The president, under the Constitution, can be removed from office for "Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanours".

High crimes and misdemeanours have historically encompassed corruption and abuses of the public trust, as opposed to indictable violations of criminal statutes.

Former President Gerald Ford, while in Congress, famously said: "An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

No president has ever been removed as a direct result of impeachment. All three presidents who were impeached by the House, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump were not convicted by the Senate. It has only been a year since the Trump impeachment trial in the upper chamber of Congress.

How does it work?

Impeachment begins in the House, the lower chamber, which debates and votes on whether to bring charges against the president via approval of an impeachment resolution, or "articles of impeachment", by a simple majority of the body's members.

The Constitution gives House leaders wide latitude in deciding how to conduct impeachment proceedings, legal experts have said.

In the first Trump impeachment, the House Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation into whether Trump abused his power to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations that would benefit him politically. Weeks of closed-door testimony and televised hearings were held before a formal evidence report was issued.

Formal charges were then prepared based on the report and the full House impeachment vote was carried out. After approval, the action then moved to the Senate for trial, with House members acting as the prosecutors; the senators as jurors; and Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts presiding. As we know, ultimately the president was not removed from office.

Things are being expedited this time around, with the House expected to vote on Wednesday or Thursday.

What would happen in the Senate?

There is debate about whether the Constitution requires a Senate trial, but Senate rules in effect do require one.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed the previous trial to proceed, this time he could let the clock run down given that president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration day is so close, meaning Mr Trump will leave office on 20 January.

Were a trial to proceed and a conviction to be handed down, Mr Trump would be removed from office with only days left of his presidency, but would be barred from seeking elected office again and would lose various benefits afforded to former presidents.

What about opening a trial and quickly ending it?

The Senate rules allow members to file, before the conclusion of the trial, motions to dismiss the charges against the president. If such a motion passes by a simple majority, the impeachment proceedings effectively end.

President Clinton's Senate impeachment trial, which did not end in a conviction, lasted five weeks. Halfway through the proceedings, a Democratic senator introduced a motion to dismiss, which was voted down.

What's the party breakdown in Congress?

Democrats control the House. The House comprises 433 members at present (there are two vacancies), 222 of whom are Democrats. As a result, the Democrats could impeach Mr Trump with no Republican support.

In 2020 the chamber voted largely along party lines to impeach the president. In 1998 the same was true when Republicans controlled the House and impeached Democrat President Clinton.

Prior to the 2020 election, the Senate had 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Conviction and removal of a president would require a two-thirds majority. With the current make-up of the chamber, a conviction seems unlikely as at least 20 Republicans and all the Democrats and independents would have to vote against him.

What confuses things slightly is the Georgia runoffs and when the two Democrat winners, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock take their seats replacing Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler giving the chamber a 50:50 split, with the vice president casting a tie-breaking vote.

This depends on when Georgia certifies the results of the runoff elections — no earlier than 15 January and no later than 22 January — which, while giving the Democrats the majority, still leaves them far short of the two-thirds needed for a conviction.

Is there still time to remove Trump before the end of his term?

A lot of moving pieces would need to fall into place in a very short amount of time.

With the resolution now brought before the House, a vote is likely to proceed on either Wednesday or Thursday. Were that vote to pass, Mr Trump would be the first president ever to be impeached twice.

A separate resolution was also introduced calling on Vice President Mike Pence to convene the cabinet to discuss whether to invoke the 25th Amendment that would remove the president from office for not being able to carry out his duties. An objection was raised by a Republican lawmaker and the House adjourned until Tuesday.

While there are no set timelines for an impeachment, even if pushed through the House in record time and immediately transmitted to the Senate, it seems highly unlikely that there would be time for any form of debate, trial, or necessary rule changes even if to expedite things further.

The president still has allies in the Senate and a two-thirds majority seems unlikely, but the move by the House is also symbolic and underlines that such actions will not go unpunished. Some experts also argue that there is also the possibility of pursuing the Senate trial after Mr Trump leaves office — though the debate on this continues.

If the president is to leave office ahead of 20 January, more likely routes in terms of the short timeframe are through the 25th Amendment or through his own resignation.

Neither looks likely, but given the current climate in Washington, DC, it might be premature to rule either out completely.

Who becomes president if Trump is removed?

In the unlikely event the Senate convicts the president (or he resigns or is removed by the cabinet), Vice President Mike Pence would become president for the remainder of Trump's term – mere days – ending on 20 January, 2021.

Were that to happen, Mr Pence would hold the record for the shortest term in office ever by a US president, beating President William Henry Harrison who died on 4 April 1841, just 31 days into his term.

With additional reporting from Reuters

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