For the second time in the last 15 months, Donald Trump faces trial in the United States Senate as part of the impeachment process. In this article, we’ll take a look at the impeachment process, the role of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the potential outcomes, and the situations in which the impeachment process has been used in the past.
What Is Impeachment?
Generally speaking, impeachment is a political procedure whereby a public official faces sanctions or penalties for conduct in office that is perceived to endanger the common good. In the United States, it is a two-step process. Under the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives has the sole authority to impeach a president, vice president, or any commissioned officer of the federal government. The act of impeachment does not carry any penalty but is instead nothing more than a statement of charges, similar to a grand jury indictment. Once the articles of impeachment are approved by the House of Representatives (which requires a simple majority vote), the articles are delivered to the United States Senate, where a trial on the charges takes place. To convict a public official of charges under articles of impeachment, two-thirds (67) of all senators must vote in favor of conviction.
Accordingly, in the current situation, it is accurate to say that former President Trump has been impeached a second time. However, if the Senate does not convict him on those charges, there will be no legal consequences for the impeachment.
The constitution does not specify a standard or burden of proof, but leaves that up to the discretion of individual senators and representatives. Accordingly, it need not be shown “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the official on trial committed the alleged wrongful act. Furthermore, there’s no requirement that the wrongful acts be criminal in nature, although more than 2/3 of the articles of impeachment that have been issued by the House of Representatives have explicitly alleged criminal conduct.
Because the Constitution does not contain rules of procedure for impeachment trials, those rules must be promulgated by the Senate, and may vary from proceeding to proceeding. The first impeachment trial of Donald Trump had no witnesses because the Republican majority in the Senate voted against having any witnesses. Trump’s second trial will have witnesses because the Senate is now controlled by the Democratic party.
The process is typically not subject to judicial review. Because the issue is perceived to be a “political question,” rather than a legal question, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that impeachment proceedings may not be subject to scrutiny by the courts. For this reason, the guarantees of the Constitution, such as the right to free speech, are inapplicable in an impeachment defense. The question is less whether the person on trial had a legal right to engage in the specified conduct than whether the conduct endangered the common good.
What Offenses Can Be the Basis for an Impeachment?
The Constitution limits impeachment to situations where a public official allegedly commits treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Unfortunately, the Constitution does not define “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Congress has specifically determined three different types of conduct that fall into that category:
- Acts that involve an abuse or excessive use of the power of the office,
- Behavior that is not compatible with the purpose of function of the office, and
- Using the office for personal gain or some other improper purpose.
The History of Impeachment in the United States
In the history of the United States, three presidents and 18 other officials have been impeached. None of the presidents have been removed from office:
- Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor, was impeached in 1868 after Johnson intentionally violated the Tenure of Office Act, passed over his veto. He escaped conviction by a single vote.
- Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice for statements and actions related to allegations of sexual improprieties while in the White House. He was acquitted in the Senate.
- Donald Trump was impeached a first time in December 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of justice tied to allegations that he pressured a foreign leader to investigate a potential political rival and ordered government officials not to testify in Congressional hearings related to the matter. He was acquitted in a vote that saw only one Republican senator vote for conviction.
- Donald Trump was impeached a second time in January 2021 on allegations that he incited the insurrection and assault on the U.S. Capitol building that took place January 6, 2021.
Penalties for Conviction
Under the Constitution, conviction can lead to removal from office or disqualification to hold “any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”