The question, “How do you impeach a U.S. president,” is being tossed around, as Donald Trump’s administration appears to be on the brink of imploding.
At a glance, impeachment sounds cut and dried. If an elected official — even a sitting president — committed “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” they can be removed from office. Notwithstanding politics, impeaching a president is part of a complex process that has many moving parts.
When the framers of the U.S. Constitution declared a system based on law and order, they agreed to confer a process by which a scandalous leader, who has failed to uphold their vows to the electorate, can be sanctioned — removed by decree.
Impeachment proceedings were born out of the consensus. But how do you impeach a president? Vox put together a simplistic video on Facebook that explains the legal process.
Michael Gerhardt is a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. According to the UNC directory, Gerhardt has been an expert witness and strong voice on major “conflicts between presidents and Congress over the past century.”
Gerhardt is also the author of the “Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis.” He points out how anyone — even laypersons — could be subject to impeachment, according to past British law that predated America. Moreover, the penalties were severe during those times and punishments could include death.
Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, posed a question during the debate over how to set up a government.
“What should happen if a president has rendered himself obnoxious?”
At the time, many countries didn’t have systematic ways of removing a leader from office when they’ve — for the lack of a better phrase — worn out their usefulness. As a frame of reference, they turned to British precedent: impeachment aka “trial, conviction and punishment.”
Franklin and others borrowed from the British playbook and crafted articles of impeachment tailored for American’s system of democracy. Straightforward, based on Article 2, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Treason is relatively simple: a president or other civil servant can be impeached if they are found guilty of aiding an enemy of the United States. Bribery is the act of taking/receiving money in exchange for some political favor (quid pro quo or “this for that”).
However, impeachment from high Crimes and Misdemeanors is not as trouble-free to prove, according to Gerhardt. Fundamentally, this type of impeachable offense involves “serious offenses to the republic” and breaches of trust. Historically, only three U.S. presidents have been subject to impeachment questions involving their alleged offenses: William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
Impeachment begins in the House of Representatives. Any member can introduce a “resolution,” which has to be approved by the House Judiciary Committee. If a majority vote prevails, it goes to the full House. If a simple majority (50 percent plus one) prevails here, the president is formally impeached.
Here’s where many people misunderstand the nomenclature. Although the president is “impeached,” they are not officially removed from office. A Senate trial occurs, and the members act like jurors in a conventional court system. If 67 percent of senators agree to impeach after hearing arguments from both sides, the president is then removed from office.
Based on a number of reporting agencies, the odds are high that Donald Trump will be impeached before his second term begins. However, based on historical precedent, removing Trump from office is unlikely. Of the only two presidents impeached formally by the House of Representatives (Clinton and Johnson) — Nixon resigned before a vote — none were formally removed.
South Korea, a close ally of the United States, recently upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Under her leadership, the country was embroiled in scandal. Park allegedly imparted influence on a spiritual adviser in managing the country, according to Vox. She is also tied to a bribery scandal with Samsung and a close confidante for alleged abuse of power, according to Aljazeera.
The revelation launched public outrage and protests. Approximately one million people petitioned lawmakers for impeachment hearings. The movement was largely buoyed by Park’s headlong drop in approval ratings; polls showed that only 4 percent of South Koreans approved of her time in office.
Last week, the country’s highest court ruled in favor of impeaching the embattled leader, effectively ending her term in office. It marks the first time in the country’s history that impeachment ended in the formal removal of an elected leader.
The country now has two months to hold elections and name a new president. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is serving as the interim leader.
Allegedly, Donald Trump has committed many questionable acts and has been tied to several scandals during his less than 100 days in office — any one of which can raise flags for impeachment hearings. Still, as Vox points out, the tipping point to successfully impeach a president hinges on if they lose the support of their party.
Until Paul Ryan and the GOP have the courage to take back their party, restore the sanctity of the White House and set a precedent, history will continue to side with the president — good, bad, or indifferent.
That being said, the question of how to impeach a president lies currently with the GOP.
[Featured Image by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images]