While America continues to quarrel over President Trump’s impeachment acquittal, it is important to analyze the tool of impeachment itself. Although we may hear this term in the news, it is only through truly understanding impeachment that we can fully comprehend the seriousness of this matter. Through this lesson, we can learn that this legal device is more common and less powerful than most people expect.
For a federal official to be impeached, the House of Representatives must first bring charges against the individual to the House Judiciary Committee. These charges must involve one or more of the following items: treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. After the committee investigates the matters at hand, it decides whether to pursue these issues by passing articles of impeachment to the House. These documents detail the alleged offenses of the individual in question. If the House votes to approve the articles of impeachment by a simple majority, the government official is impeached. Essentially, he or she is formally accused of wrongdoing.
Once impeached, the person in question faces a trial in the Senate to determine whether he or she will be removed from office. A two-thirds majority removes the official from office. This might also result in the individual being forbidden from holding the same political office in the future. Civil courts then handle any crimes committed by the individual, which could result in fines or jail time.
Although people often associate impeachment with U.S. presidents, this is not always the case. Article 2, Section 4, of the Constitution, allows Congress to also impeach and prosecute the vice president and government officials. For example, U.S. Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached in 1876 for disregard for his office and taking bribes to arrange meetings with government officials. He was acquitted later that year. In addition, U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne was impeached in 1986 following allegations of tax evasion and staying on the bench after his criminal conviction. Unlike Belknap, however, Claiborne was found guilty and removed from his position.
The first presidential impeachment took place in 1868 after Andrew Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act. This law forced presidents to receive congressional approval before removing Cabinet members from office. When Johnson tried to fire his secretary of war, Congress drafted 11 articles of impeachment against the president. The Senate only voted on three of these issues, and it acquitted Johnson in these matters. The Supreme Court later repealed the Tenure of Office Act in 1926.
While Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal is often associated with the concept of impeachment, Nixon was never formally impeached. In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles against the president for engaging in criminal misconduct and interfering with a government investigation. At this point, enough evidence was mounting against the president that it was clear he would probably face impeachment and removal from office. To avoid this issue, Nixon resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974, before the entire House could approve the articles against him.
In 1998, the House drafted four articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. Only two articles were approved. One alleged that Clinton lied under oath about an affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The other accused the president of trying to obstruct justice to interfere with the proceedings of a civil case against him. The House impeached Clinton on these matters in December of that year, but the Senate acquitted him of the charges in Feb. 1999.
In the case of President Trump, the House approved two articles of impeachment regarding abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. These referred to a phone call made by Trump in July 2019 and the coverup that followed. In the call, the president asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to find unfavorable information about political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for military aid that had already been approved by Congress. The Senate acquitted Trump in Feb. 2020.
Although impeachment is a scar on one’s record, it does not necessarily mean as much as some believe. Because someone can be acquitted, there is no guarantee this procedure will remove immoral government officials from their positions. In addition, impeached individuals can run for other public offices after their trials. As a result, while we often believe impeachment is a guaranteed way to remove misbehaved officials, it should be regarded more as a method to hopefully hold them in check in the eyes of the American people.