I’ve always kind of thought that the word “impeach” or “impeachment” meant to remove the President of the United States from office. You know, kind of like getting the President fired.
It’s an honest mistake. I mean, the news and conversations surrounding impeachment have always made it sound as much. As I’ve been following along with what’s going on in the news lately, it becomes more and more clear that I’m not the only one with this misconception. So, let’s set the record straight and figure out what this word really means.
To begin, let’s clarify that impeachment is one part (a very important part) in the process of removing certain public officials – like the President – from office. An impeachment is what gets the whole ball rolling towards removal, which is probably why we all get so confused. But it’s not the whole thing. Once a public official is impeached, that person then goes on trial before the Senate. If convicted of the crimes stated in the articles of impeachment at the end of the trial process, that person is then removed from office.
Confused yet? I’m almost confusing myself and I’m just getting started.
What if we used another word that is similar to the word impeachment, like indictment? Yeah, that doesn’t really help me all that much either, but let’s define the word indictment anyway. An indictment is a formal accusation stating that someone has committed a serious crime. So impeachment is a formal accusation stating that a public official, specifically someone from the executive or judicial branch of government, has committed a serious crime.
It is not, however, a conviction. It’s simply an accusation — a very formal one.
Who can make a formal accusation? Who has the power to impeach? Well, in the case of the President of the United States, the House of Representatives is the only one who can carry out an impeachment. They have their own process for drawing up the articles of impeachment and beginning the impeachment process. The House Judiciary Committee is usually the one that gathers and examines evidence. At some point the House of Representatives decides it’s time to vote. If the articles of impeachment pass by a simple majority (more than 50% of the representatives), the president is impeached.
But that doesn’t mean he is removed from office.
The next step after the impeachment is for the Senate to conduct a trial. The House of Representatives acts as prosecutor. The defendant, the public official, has the right to call his own team of lawyers to aid in his defense. Now, the verdict of the trial will only determine whether the person will remain in office and nothing else. This is not a criminal trial. The Senate simply says, “you’re fired.” Or in their lingo, the President is convicted (removed) or acquitted (he can stay). This is determined by a two-thirds majority vote, not a simple majority.
And that’s why the two presidents who have been impeached were not removed from office. Both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached but continued to serve as president until the end of their term. Richard Nixon bowed out before being impeached.
For anyone interested in a little analogy, here’s one that can help us step through the process of what an impeachment would look like, focusing only on the impeachment.
Call for impeachment
My son comes running up to me and says that his sister is reading on her bed and won’t come and play. He would like me to force her to play with him.
At this point, I determine that while I think it would be nice if his sister played with her brother, she has ever right to read if she chooses. I don’t carry the process further and tell my son to do his best to think of something else to do while his sister reads. In other words, too bad kid. (By the way, this happens all the time in the House of Representatives that someone calls for impeachment but it is determined not worth pursuing.)
Second attempt to call for impeachment
This time my son comes running up to me, screaming and crying, claiming that his sister hit him on the head. Seems like a legitimate call for impeachment. Time to start an inquiry.
I examine his head. Are there any bumps, bruises, or bleeding? I examine his crying. Is this a genuine “I’m hurt” cry or a “I’m mad and maybe now she’ll play with me” kind of cry? Okay, this looks like the real deal. Time for further investigation.
I go find his sister. I start gathering and examining all of the evidence. What are the potential weapons? What happened before someone got hit? Oh? There are other injuries as well? Oh? There were other things said and done leading up to the moment of impact? I see…
Drafting the Articles of Impeachment
I start to compile the information into a list of offenses stacked against his sister. Turns out she not only might have hit him, she apparently pushed him too.
Based on the evidence, testimony, and whatever else I manage to gather, it appears that it all points to the fact that my daughter did, in fact hit and push. She is officially impeached.
Now begins the Senate Trial….
To determine my daughter’s fate, we will gather as a family and reexamine all of the evidence, gather more, look at the full context, and determine whether, based on her crimes, she should be allowed to stay in the family or not.
Just kidding… She can stay.