How Impeachment Works, And Other Key Questions

by Lani Seelinger
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Nothing like the start of Donald Trump's presidency to get everyone interested in how the government works, am I right? Like, how much power does this guy actually have? Can the judicial branch do that? And most importantly, how does a president get impeached?

Since "Trump Impeachment Party" has already become a thing on Twitter, it's clearly not too soon to be talking about it — despite the fact that Trump's presidency still isn't even a month old. But hey, it never hurts to be prepared, right? There's a lot to think about, and somehow getting to know the inner workings of the U.S. government and learning how you can attempt to use them to your advantage is a much more calming task than following the news these days.

Now I'll warn you right from the start, these are complicated processes, and I have no reason to think that they'll be set in motion anytime soon. After all, Trump has a friendly Congress, and as you'll see, they have a role to play in the whole thing. But since it's Trump and there are a lot of, let's say, unresolved issues with his presidency, well — I'll never say never.

How Does A President Get Impeached?

It all has to start with the House of Representatives. Basically, the House would have to investigate the president and find that something that he had done was worthy of bringing charges against him. Then, they hold a vote, and if a majority of the representatives agree to impeach the president, then the case moves on to the Senate.

The Senate then tries the accused person — the only case in which someone accused of a crime doesn't face a jury. If two-thirds of the Senate finds him guilty of the charges leveled against him, then and only then is he actually forced out of his position. There's a good example of a president facing impeachment and not being forced out of his position because he was found not guilty: Bill Clinton in 1998.

So If Trump Were To Get Impeached, Who's Next In Line?

The presidential line of succession does not look good for Democrats right now. First, obviously, there's the Vice President — Mike Pence. Next is the Speaker of the House — Paul Ryan. Then the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, who is currently Orrin Hatch. Next are all of the cabinet positions, starting with State and ending with Homeland Security. It might be a nice form of catharsis to see Trump impeached, but it sure wouldn't make the government any friendlier to the liberal cause.

How Often Has Impeachment Come Up Before?

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Well, if you count the right calling for Obama's impeachment from day one, then quite often. If you count actual impeachments in history, then you'll only find two: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton, as mentioned above, in 1998. Richard Nixon, contrary to popular belief, was not actually impeached — he resigned instead of facing an impeachment trial, and so far he is the only president to have resigned from office.

What's The Shortest Time A President Has Been In Office?

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Well, William Henry Harrison holds that dubious honor, but not because of impeachment — the poor guy caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died after only about four weeks in office. That's what happens when you give the longest inaugural speech ever in the cold without a coat or hat, and you don't have modern medicine at your disposal. So, President Trump's tenure has already outlasted Harrison's.

There are nine other presidents who didn't serve a full term, though, either because they died in office or because they stepped in for the end of another president's term and then didn't get re-elected for a second term. James Garfield died six months and 15 days into his first term, so that's the next milestone that Trump has to cross.

What Can Get A President Impeached?

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The law about impeachment leaves things a bit vague, so it's really open to the House of Representatives to interpret it. Technically,

"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."

That's according to the Constitution. For Andrew Johnson, the charge was breaking the Tenure of Office Act — but it was highly politically motivated. For Nixon, the charge was obstruction of justice — which he apparently found to be solid, so he resigned instead of facing impeachment proceedings. For Clinton, the charges were perjury and obstruction of justice, but as with Johnson, it was very much a politically motivated affair.

So — Where Could Trump Fit In?

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Definitely too soon to say, although the court cases are already beginning. He could be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution because he has refused to remove himself from his businesses and is still raking in the cash from them. In the left's dreams, though, he could have done something much more serious — collusion with Russian agents to win the election could amount to treason. However, no evidence of such collusion has been found (yet).

Is It Likely To Happen?

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You can hope, but don't hold your breath. Republicans hold a big enough majority in the House that Trump's misdeed would have to be obvious and egregious enough for them to take an actual stand against them. So far, we've seen a little of that — but not enough to inspire any confidence that they would actually move to investigate the president unless the circumstances were truly dire. Take Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, for example. He's the chair of the House Oversight Committee, and yet he's refusing to investigate the whole Michael Flynn thing. On the other hand, he suggested that Obama should have been impeached over Benghazi and had years of Clinton investigations planned just in case she was elected president. This is what Democrats hoping for a Trump impeachment are up against.

Can You Impeach A President For Gross Incompetence?

Glad you asked, sir. There's no precedent for it — but we could very well find out.