The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to impeach President Donald Trump, making him the first president in history to have been impeached twice. The nation has only taken this action against its president four times, and Trump now accounts for half of those occasions. The others were Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
In a vote of 232 to 197, the House approved an article of impeachment that accused Trump of inciting an insurrection against the U.S. government by falsely claiming widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election and urging his supporters to stop Congress from certifying the results of the election. Ten Republican lawmakers joined House Democrats in voting for the measure. After the president’s remarks at a January 6 rally near the White House, a pro-Trump mob besieged the U.S. Capitol building.
But for Trump to be removed or disqualified from future office, the Senate must first hold a trial. Here are the answers to five big questions about the impeachment process—and how a possible removal of the embattled president could occur.
1. How does impeachment work?
Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states that the president shall be removed from office after being impeached for treason, bribery, or "other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." That removal takes place in two distinct parts: impeachment, which is conducted by the House of Representatives, and a trial in the Senate. In order to remove a president from office, two-thirds of the senators present must vote to convict.
But the Constitution doesn't say much else about how the trial itself must be conducted. Most of the elaborate impeachment procedures familiar to modern Americans are norms, not Constitutional imperatives. Congress can set its own rules for impeachments and trials as it sees fit.
Traditionally, a member of the House of Representatives initiates impeachment by submitting a resolution that the House then adopts and refers to a committee for investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the House Judiciary Committee reviews it, decides whether there are grounds for impeachment, and issues a list of specific grounds called the articles of impeachment. The House then debates each article of impeachment. If a simple majority agrees on each article, the resolution is passed, the president is impeached, and the House turns the matter over to the Senate.
Impeachment trials are similar to a criminal trial, with a judge (the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), a prosecution (members of the House appointed to manage the trial), a defendant (the impeached president and the president's legal counsel), and a jury (the Senate). After hearing evidence and deliberating in a private session, the Senate votes to acquit or convict.
If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the president is removed from office. The Senate can then conduct another vote—this one requiring only a simple majority—to bar the convicted president from ever serving in office again.
2. Which presidents have been impeached?
The first, President Andrew Johnson, was impeached in 1868 amid a bitter feud with Congress in the aftermath of the Civil War. A Democrat who had been elected on a unity ticket with Republican Abraham Lincoln, he obstructed the agenda of Congressional Republicans as they sought to extend citizenship and the vote to Black Southerners. Congress attempted to curb Johnson’s power with the Tenure of Office Act. But when Johnson fired his secretary of war in defiance of the law, the House of Representatives brought 11 articles against him and impeached. The Senate, however, fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority it needed to convict, and Johnson remained in office.
President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 on two articles for perjury and obstruction of justice connected to a civil sexual harassment case. In a deposition for the lawsuit, Clinton denied any sexual involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky—a denial contradicted by an independent counsel investigation. The House impeached Clinton, but he was acquitted in the Senate in a largely party-line vote.
Trump was impeached in the House in December 2019 after lawmakers brought articles for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in relation to his alleged solicitation of foreign interference in the upcoming presidential election. But though the House impeached him, he was handily acquitted at the end of his Senate trial. Since Trump was found not guilty by the Senate, any second impeachment attempt must deal with a new set of accusations.
One other president, Richard Nixon, was the subject of formal impeachment proceedings in 1973 and 1974 for obstruction of justice and abuse of power related to a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate in Washington, D.C. But after an incriminating tape was uncovered, Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.
3. How quickly could a president be impeached?
It depends. The House only requires a simple majority to impeach. It could move to pass an impeachment resolution and articles of impeachment without an investigation or a vote by the House Judiciary Committee.
A swift impeachment isn't unprecedented—in Johnson’s case, Congress drew up an impeachment resolution three days after he dismissed his secretary of war, and took a mere week to adopt articles of impeachment and move the matter to trial. But usually the process is much more drawn out: Clinton's took 72 days, and Trump's 49 days in 2019.
Removal is another issue entirely. To swiftly remove a president, both chambers—and parties—would have to work together.
The Constitution is largely mute on how a Senate trial must be conducted. It only requires three things: that senators take an oath, that the chief justice of the Supreme Court preside, and that conviction takes a two-thirds majority vote. The Senate abides by a set of impeachment trial rules it adopted in 1986, and each Senate approves trial proceedings specific to each case. But the Senate majority leader has considerable leeway in determining how the trial itself plays out.
The speediest impeachment trial ever, Trump's trial in 2020, took 18 days. To expedite a trial, lawmakers would have to be willing to set tradition aside. And Democrats would need buy-in by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to rush the matter through the majority-Republican Senate.
But even with an expedited trial, the Senate would need a supermajority—67 out of 100 senators—to convict. It’s extremely unlikely McConnell and at least 17 Republican senators will fall into lockstep with Pelosi and Senate Democrats.
4. What happens if there’s no trial before Trump’s term ends?
Even if a president leaves office before removal, it doesn't preclude an attempt to permanently disqualify him from future office.
Though there is no precedent with a president, the House did impeach former War Secretary William Belknap on five articles of impeachment in 1876 after his resignation. A majority voted to convict Belknap in the Senate, but a supermajority was not achieved, and he was acquitted.
If a Senate trial were to take place after Trump's term ends on January 20, it would occur with a different balance of party power. Democrats just picked up two Senate seats in runoff elections in Georgia and will have a majority once those votes are certified.
Since those seats will create a 50-50 split in the Senate, the Democrats will not officially have a majority until President-Elect Joe Biden takes office and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris becomes president of the Senate. If the House were to delay sending the impeachment to the Senate until January 20, they could do so with assurance that presumptive Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will order a trial. But even with a Democratic majority, any trial would need true bipartisan support given the supermajority that’s required to succeed.
5. Why might lawmakers opt for impeachment instead of the 25th Amendment?
Although Pelosi had originally threatened impeachment only if Vice President Mike Pence did not act to remove the president using the 25th Amendment, there are advantages to pursuing impeachment instead. The 25th Amendment can only be invoked by the vice president and a majority of Cabinet members, but Congress controls the impeachment process.
If a vice president and Cabinet were to remove a president under the 25th Amendment, that president would still be able to run for future office. If an impeachment trial resulted in a conviction, on the other hand, lawmakers could vote to bar a president from ever serving again.