What Is Impeachment & What Happens Next In The Process?

The U.S. Capitol is shown June 5, 2003 in Washington, DC.
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As the House of Representatives prepares to conduct a formal impeachment vote on President Donald Trump, it’s important to understand the impeachment process in its entirety and what might happen in the next stage of the process.

What Is The Impeachment Process?

A copy of former President George Washington's personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
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The framers of the U.S. Constitution included the impeachment process and rules to allow for a sitting U.S. president to be charged with wrongdoing by the U.S. House of Representatives. The impeachment process is not one of a criminal matter, rather, it’s a political process at the House’s disposal that allows members to draft impeachment articles against the president for the possibility of an eventual trial in the U.S. Senate to determine whether or not to remove the president from office.

Aside from the president, impeachment articles can also be drafted against a vice president or any United States civil officer.

A president, or other eligible official, can face impeachment charges on several grounds. These are outlined in Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. Those grounds include “bribery,” “treason” or “other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Because of that definition, the president does not have to commit a crime to face impeachment, as Congress can initiate an impeachment inquiry based on what they consider acts of wrongdoing or misconduct by the accused person.

How Does The Impeachment Process Begin?

The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington, DC.
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The impeachment process can be initiated by any member of the House of Representatives. The Speaker of the House will then decide on whether to launch an official impeachment inquiry to determine whether or not the accused official is guilty of the charge or charges brought forward.

The House Speaker will then task various House committees with handling and completing the investigative portion of an impeachment inquiry, which can include witness depositions, witness examination and input from subject experts to help guide committee members in determining if articles of impeachment should be drafted against the accused.

There is no official timeline of how long an impeachment inquiry is required to last, as that is largely determined by the House Speaker and committee chairpersons.

If committee members decide to draft articles of impeachment against the accused, each article of impeachment will eventually face a vote by the House Judiciary Committee. Should the article or articles of impeachment receive a simple majority vote, the impeachment matter will be passed over to the House floor for a full, formal vote on whether or not to impeach the accused.

What Happens If The House Passes An Impeachment Vote?

The U.S. Capitol is seen during a partial shutdown of the U.S. government, on December 26, 2018.
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Should the House formally vote to impeach the accused, the official will then have officially been “impeached.” The matter is then transferred to the U.S. Senate for a trial in which a Senate jury will determine whether or not to convict the official, which could mean removal from office.

The Chief Justice of the United States presides over a Senate impeachment trial as opposed to the usual presiding officer of the Senate, the vice president. That rule is in place likely to prevent any conflicts of interest given that a ruling for a president’s removal from office would mean the vice president fills the vacant role.

The rules of the impeachment trial are largely dictated by the ruling political party of the Senate. However, negotiations for the impeachment trial rules typically take place in the weeks leading up to the potential of a Senate trial.

The ruling party of the Senate can also decide to dismiss the charges immediately, should they have the required number of votes, forgoing an official Senate impeachment trial.

What Are The Options For The Final Outcome?

House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Jim McGovern holds the gavel.
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The accused official can only be removed from office if the Senate passes the measure with a two-thirds vote. Though the Senate has the power to remove an official from office and, through a separate process, prevent them from holding public office in the future, the Senate cannot refer criminal charges or sentence the accused official to prison.

However, according to Article 1, Section 3, Clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution, “the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” This means that the convicted official could face later criminal charges.

If the Senate is unable to muster a two-thirds vote to remove the official, the accused will still be considered “impeached.” However, the person will not be removed from office and is able to continue to conduct business as usual in their position.