Graphic by MEREK ALAM
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA) announced last week that there would be a formal impeachment inquiry investigating any illegal actions taken by the Trump Administration after a whistleblower report was made public. Interest from curious Americans has led many to ask, how does the impeachment process work?
Impeachment stems from the constitutional principle of checks and balances, the power of branches of government to ensure that the others are not overstepping their power. It is not limited to only the Chief Executive; it can be used to hold any public official accountable for misconduct. The officer in question must have committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” per the Constitution.
However, the framers may not have anticipated how this system may play out in today’s day and age.
“They didn’t foresee how intense partisan loyalty might undermine separation of powers and rule of law, especially in a highly polarized environment such as our own,” said William Gorton, professor of political science.
To be “impeached” is not necessarily to be removed from office. It is synonymous with being indicted for a crime. Just as within any fair trial, an inditement or impeachment is not automatically a guilty sentence. Several presidents have been impeached, however, no sitting president has been removed from office through this process.
The power of impeachment is explicitly given to congress in the constitution. “The main reason the framers of the constitution gave congress the power to remove a president is because they feared that the presidency could morph into a tyrannical power,” said Gorton.
The exact process, however, was given as a guideline, not as a rigid process. Historically, the House Judiciary Committee has first held an investigation, to ensure there was enough evidence to require further action. If they reached the conclusion that there was, they would recommend Articles of Impeachment to the full House of Representatives.
The House Judiciary Committee gathers this information from six other House committees including the House Intelligence Committee, which is where congress is at currently; if they determine there is sufficient evidence to impeach Mr. Trump, the process will move forward.
After the House Committee investigations are complete, the individual articles – or accusations – will be held to a vote. If even one article is passed, the president will be considered impeached, and the Senate will take over.
In the Constitution, the House is charged with compiling evidence and establishing the Articles of Impeachment. The Senate is then asked to hold a trial, to acquit or convict the official in question.
The Senate trial acts as a pseudo courtroom. “They are expected to hold a trial of some kind – which would normally entail hearing witness testimony and discussing evidence of wrongdoing by the president” said Gorton. However, he also explained, “they could conceivably just vote to dismiss the articles without holding a trial.”
Selected House members would serve as a ‘prosecution,’ the president selects his own defense lawyers and the entire Senate will act as the jury. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, presides.
Upon conclusion of the trial, the Senate will hold a vote in which two thirds of members would constitute as a majority. In the event the president is voted guilty, he would then be removed from office immediately and the vice president would take over. Unlike a typical trial, there is no appeal process.
A president – or any public official for that matter – can be impeached, however, to be fully removed, the approval of the Senate is required.
As far as an expected timeline, Gorton explained that given historical precedent – or lack thereof it is nearly impossible to predict how long the process may take. It is also important to note that this is the first time a sitting president has been threatened with impeachment while seeking reelection.