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How is a US president impeached?

The process of impeachment is not as easy as people are led to believe, and removing a sitting US president is even more difficult.

world Updated: Dec 03, 2017 08:01 IST
Kartikeya Ramanathan
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak about tax reform legislation in St Louis, Missouri on November 29, 2017.
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak about tax reform legislation in St Louis, Missouri on November 29, 2017.(Reuters)

Donald Trump is one of the most unpopular US presidents in modern times. His alleged collusion with Russia, his repeated conflicts of interest, the numerous allegations of sexual harassment against him, and even his “unpresidential” behaviour — all have been questioned both in the US and the world at large.

With Trump taking the US from one of the most powerful nations to the butt of memes, some lawmakers, several political commentators, and celebrities across the board have called for his impeachment.

However, the process of impeachment is not as easy as people are led to believe, and removing a sitting president is even more difficult.

What does impeachment mean?

The term has its roots in England, where it was “a device for prosecuting great lords and high officials who were beyond the reach of the law courts.” The writers of the US Constitution tweaked that word, taking it to mean a process by which Congress could remove a sitting president from power.

The process is threefold. First, the House of Representatives will take up the issue, in which a simple majority has to approve the motion for impeachment.

The action then moves to the Senate, where a trial is held, with the Supreme Court chief justice presiding over it. The House of Representatives will act as the prosecution and the president’s own lawyers as the defence. The chief justice is mostly responsible for procedural rulings — his or her decisions can be overruled by the Senate.

Interestingly, the president does not need to be present for these proceedings.

Finally, after the trial, the Senate needs a two-third majority to convict the president — an extremely difficulty majority in an even slightly divided House.

What are the “crimes” that the president be impeached for?

There are mainly two arguments to impeach a president: treason and bribery. However, the writers of the Constitution tacked on a third argument — “high crimes” and misdemeanours — which former US president Gerard Ford noted was “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”.

Who has been impeached?

Only two presidents have been impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.

Johnson took over after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, but was said to be sympathetic towards the Deep South in the reconstruction following the US civil war — something Republican senators were less than happy about.

He was impeached in 1868 after he attempted to replace his secretary of war, but was acquitted after the Senate fell short of a two-third majority by just a single vote.

Bill Clinton is one of only two US presidents to have been impeached. (Getty Images)

Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice after it emerged that he lied under oath to prevent his affair with Monica Lewinsky from being known. However, the Senate acquitted him fairly quickly, not viewing the charges against him as being serious enough to warrant his removal from office.

Another president, Richard Nixon, was headed toward seemingly certain impeachment in 1974 over the Watergate scandal, and his crimes were serious enough to warrant his removal. However, he pre-emptively resigned.

Can Trump be impeached?

All three above examples were of presidents facing a Congress which was controlled by their political enemies, but Trump does not — as long as the Republicans control Congress, it’s difficult to imagine any impeachment.

Trump remains very popular within the Republican party base, and his removal will backfire on the party. He is also sympathetic to party interests and Republicans need him to appoint conservative judges and sign conservative bills.

What if Trump is impeached?

If, no matter how improbably, Trump is impeached, the order of succession is vice president, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate president pro tempore. Thus, if Trump goes, Mike Pence gets into the White House.