Impeachment is serious business—it can lead to a U.S. President’s removal from office. As of December 2020, only three U.S. Presidents have ever been impeached, and none have ever been removed from office through the impeachment process.
But “impeachment” can be a pretty confusing situation for those of us who aren’t lawyers or politicians. What is impeachment, anyway? What happens if a President is impeached? And how does impeachment work?
But don’t worry—we’re here to demystify this confusing process. We’re going to answer all your FAQs about impeachment in this article, including:
- What Is Impeachment, and What Does Impeachment Mean?
- Who Can Be Impeached?
- How Does Impeachment Work?
- What Does Impeachment Mean for a President?
There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
Feature image: Nick Youngson/PicPedia
What Is Impeachment?
Impeachment is the process by which Congress can remove the President or other civil officers from office. This is laid out in Article 2, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which states:
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.
Essentially, impeachment is made up of two parts. The first part of impeachment begins in the House of Representatives, where charges are brought against the President through Articles of Impeachment.
Then the Senate holds a trial, where Senators ultimately decide whether to acquit the person being impeached or find them guilty. If the impeached person is acquitted, they essentially keep their job. If they’re found guilty, that person is “fired” and removed from office.
And that’s the general process! Of course, impeachment isn’t quite this simple. We’ll go into lots more detail about the impeachment process a little later in the article.
Who Can Be Impeached?
Let’s take a closer look at Article 2, Section 4 to see who can be impeached:
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.
Article 2 makes it clear that both the President and Vice President of the United States can be impeached. It also says that “civil officers” are subject to impeachment. But what is a civil officer?
While the Constitution does not explicitly name every civil officer that can be impeached, it does define the term “civil officer.” Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution outlines the powers that the President of the United States has. This article states that:
[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
We bolded the part of Article 2 that helps us understand who a civil officer is. The Constitution makes it clear that civil officers are appointed by the President. That means that any person who’s been appointed to a high level position by the President can be impeached. That includes Supreme Court Justices, federal judges, and cabinet members.
But can a Member of Congress be impeached? Or can a Senator be impeached? Because these are elected positions, Congresspeople and Senators can’t be removed from office by the impeachment process laid out in the Constitution. They can, however, be removed by expulsion. This is laid out under Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution. If two-thirds of the House (for a Member) or two-thirds of the Senate (for a Senator) vote in favor of removal of a person from their position, they will be expelled. They can also be recalled by the state they represent and removed from office. You can read more about how Senators or Congress Members can be removed from office here.
In this article, we’re focusing primarily on U.S. Presidential impeachment. But just know that other types of federal officials can be impeached—and if they are, their impeachment follows the exact same processes we’ve outlined below.
Impeachment of State Officials
In this article, we’re talking about impeachment of federal officials through the process outlined by the U.S. Constitution. But state officials, like governors, state supreme court justices, and state judges can be impeached, too.
Impeachable state officials are impeached following the guidelines in their state’s constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. So if you wanted to impeach the governor of Kansas, for example, you would need to follow the impeachment process that’s outlined in the Kansas State Constitution.
For more information about how a specific state can impeach its officials and remove them from office, you’ll need to research that state’s constitutional impeachment process.
There are only three things a President can be impeached for: treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors. Learn more about each of these charges below.
(Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images)
What Does it Mean to Be Impeached?
So what does impeachment mean, exactly?
When a President is impeached, it means that the House of Representatives are accusing the President of “treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors” as outlined in Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution.
In other words, impeachment works like an indictment in a criminal case. It’s basically how the House of Representatives, by majority vote, can charge the President with either a crime or gross misconduct.
There are three general categories of charges that Congress can bring against the President as outlined in Article 3. Let’s take a closer look at each of those categories below.
Treason is the only crime that’s defined in the U.S. Constitution. In Article 3, Section 3, it states:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.
Essentially, treason happens when a U.S. citizen intentionally wages war against the U.S. Government or its interests. It is also treason if a citizen willingly aids an enemy of the United States. So for example, if the President were to form a military group with the intent of taking over the United States government, they would be guilty of treason. The President could also be charged with treason if they sold state secrets to an enemy of the United States.
Bribery is defined as the act of giving, asking for, or receiving anything of value in order to influence the actions of a public official. One example of bribery is if the President were to personally receive money from a foreign government to influence how much aid the United States gives that country. Similarly, if the President were to offer a person a seat in the Cabinet in exchange for favors, they could be impeached for bribery.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors
High crimes and misdemeanors is the trickiest term to define. That’s because high crimes and misdemeanors can encompass a variety of behaviors—not all of which are criminal. Generally speaking, most Constitutional scholars say that “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a category designed to a) encompass other criminal acts not outlined by Article 3, and b) address instances where the President seriously misuses or abuses the power of the office. Historically, this phrasing has been used to impeach Presidents for severe misconduct, exceeding the powers of the Executive Branch, and using the office of the presidency for personal gain.
As a result, “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a bit of a catch-all category when it comes to impeachment, and it allows Congress to use its discretion when it comes to impeaching a President.
Donald Trump is the first U.S. President to have been impeached twice. Let's take a closer look at what impeachment can—and can't—do.
What Happens if a President is Impeached?
Like we mentioned earlier, if a president is impeached, it means that the House of Representatives has voted to indict the President on either criminal charges or high crimes and misdemeanors. (Remember, high crimes and misdemeanors aren’t always crimes, despite what the name implies. It also covers abuses of power and serious acts of misconduct that might not technically be illegal.)
One a President is formally impeached, their case goes to the Senate. If the House is the part of Congress that brings charges, then the Senate is where the President stands trial. Senators serve as the jury—their job is to hear the case presented to the Senate, then decide whether the President is guilty or not guilty.
If the President is not guilty, then they are acquitted of all charges and continue to be the President of the United States.
If a President is found guilty, then they are immediately removed from office. In that case, the Vice President of the United States becomes President until the next Presidential election.
Additionally, if a President is removed from office, they can potentially lose all the perks that come with being a former President of the United States. That includes their lifetime secret service detail, their pension, and annual budget for security and travel.
However, a removed President isn’t automatically prevented from holding public office again in the future. That only happens if the Senate holds a separate vote on the matter and votes in favor of barring the former President from doing so.
Impeachment: After President Leaves Office
Let's say a President has left office, but that months later Congress find that the person committed impeachable offenses. Can that President be impeached even though they are no longer president?
The short answer is probably not.
Because Presidents no longer have Presidential power once they are out of office, some Constitutional scholars believe they become exempt from impeachment. Impeachment is a way for the Legislative Branch to check the Executive Branch. Ex-Presidents are no longer members of the executive branch
But this is also a situation that hasn't occurred before, so Constitutional scholars point out that for this question to really be answered, it would have to be ruled on by the courts.
But what about President Trump? Wasn't he impeached after he left office?
No. In 2021, President Trump was impeached following the January 6th, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Trump was formally impeached on January 13th, one week before the end of his term. His Senate trial will occur after he leaves office, however.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are involved in impeachment. Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of the impeachment process!
How Does Impeachment Work?
Now that you can answer the question, “What is Presidential impeachment,” let’s dig a little deeper into how this two-step process works.
We’re going to be talking about how impeachment works for a U.S. President below, but remember: the impeachment process is the same for all impeachable federal officials, including the Vice President, federal judges, and Supreme Court Justices. Whoever is being impeached will go through the same process we outline below! (Just swap out the term “President” for “Vice President” or “Judge,” and you’ll get the drift.)
The Role of the House of Representatives in Impeachment
Impeachment always begins in the House of Representatives. That’s because Article 1, Section 2 gives the House the sole power to impeach:
The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Usually, the impeachment process begins with a resolution to start an investigation into impeachment. If the House passes that resolution by majority vote, the House Judiciary Committee starts looking into whether the President has committed impeachable offenses. There is no set length of time for this investigation process: it can take anywhere from days to months. (And in the case of Donald Trump’s second impeachment, the investigation was skipped entirely.)
If the committee finds that there is grounds for impeachment, then the House begins drafting Articles of Impeachment. The Articles of Impeachment outline the impeachable offenses that the President is accused of having committed. (Remember: the House’s job is basically to bring charges against the President) Once drafted, the Articles of Impeachment are brought before the House for a vote.
If the Articles of Impeachment are passed by a simple majority, then the President is officially impeached. So in the case of Donald Trump’s impeachment, 217 of the House’s 435 members would have to vote in favor of the Articles in order for impeachment to go through. (In fact, 229 members voted in favor of Trump’s first impeachment, and 232 members voted in favor of the second.)
At this point, the Articles are sent to the Senate to prepare for the President’s trial. Additionally, the Speaker of the House appoints a set of House Managers for the trial as well. House Managers are a small group of House members that act like prosecuting attorneys for the President’s impeachment trial. Their job is to present the House’s case against the President to the Senate.
The Role of the Senate in Impeachment
Just as the U.S. Constitution outlines the role of the House of Representatives when it comes to impeachment, it also outlines the role of the Senate. Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution states:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
So if the House’s job is to bring impeachment charges against the President, then the Senate’s job is to serve as the jury and decide whether the President is guilty of the charges brought against them.
In order to do this effectively, the Senate holds a trial where the case against the Present is heard.
Like a normal court trial, a Presidential impeachment trial consists of a prosecution, defense, judge, and jury.
We already know that House Managers are the prosecutors, and Senators are the jury members. So who serves as the judge and the defense?
The judge that presides over a Senate impeachment trial is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Their job is to make sure that the rules of the trial—as outlined by the Senate—are being followed. But that’s about where the comparisons between a normal court trial and a Senate impeachment trial end.
What the Chief Justice won’t do is weigh in on the proceedings, listen to complaints by the defense or prosecution, or hand down a conviction. According to the Supreme Court of the United States blog, the Chief Justice’s role in an impeachment trial is to do “nothing in particular and [do] it very well.”
That leaves the defense. The defense in an impeachment trial consists of the official White House counsel, other lawyers selected by the President, and a few House members from the President’s political party. The defense’s job is to defend the President from the charges brought against them.
The length of a Presidential impeachment trial varies from impeachment to impeachment. Before the trial begins, the Senate will set the rules for the trial. This includes how many witnesses are heard, which documents will be submitted for consideration, and how long the proceedings will last. Additionally, Senators can only submit written questions—they aren’t allowed to actively participate in the trial itself.
Once the prosecution and defense have exhausted the time allotted by the rules the Senate has set, it’s time for the Senate to vote on whether the President is guilty of the charges brought against them. In order for a President to be removed from office, two-thirds of Senators present have to find them guilty of the charges brought against them. So if all 100 Senators are present for the vote, 67 of them have to vote guilty. Otherwise, the President is acquitted of the charges.
When it comes to a Senate impeachment trial, there is no appeals process. Whatever the Senate decides is the final word.
But what about the President? If they are removed from office, can the former President hold political office again? In order to be banned from running for or holding political office, the Senate must hold an additional, separate vote on the subject. It’s not an automatic punishment for being impeached and removed!
Also keep in mind that being removed from office does not mean the President is going to jail. The role of impeachment is political, which means that its job is to determine whether someone should keep their office or not.
In order for a President to go to jail, they have to be charged with a crime and found guilty in criminal court. That is a separate process from impeachment!
Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, was impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors in 1998.
How Many Presidents Have Been Impeached?
As of January 2021, only three sitting U.S. Presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998, and Donald Trump in 2019 and 2021.
Each of these Presidents was impeached for different reasons, which we’ll go over below.
What Does Impeachment Mean for a President: Andrew Jackson
In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached on charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, making him the first U.S. President to be impeached.
The House accused Johnson of violating the Tenure of Office Act, which stated that the President would need Senate approval in order to remove certain appointed officials. When Johnson removed Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, from office, the House filed Articles of Impeachment.
At the conclusion of the Senate trial, Johnson was acquitted of all the charges brought against him.
What Does Impeachment Mean for a President: Bill Clinton
It would be over a century before another U.S. President was impeached. But in 1998, the House of Representatives filed Articles of Impeachment against Bill Clinton.
Clinton was also accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. Specifically, the House charged him with lying under oath when he denied having a sexual relationship with one of his interns. He was also charged with obstructing justice.
Like Andrew Johnson, Clinton was acquitted of all charges.
What Does Impeachment Mean for a President: Donald Trump
Donald Trump is the only American President in history to have been impeached twice.
Trump’s first impeachment was in 2019. The House filed Articles of Impeachment against Trump, accusing him of pressuring the President of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, who would be challenging Trump in the 2020 Presidential election. As a result, Trump was charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, which fall under “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Trump would end up acquitted of the charges by the Senate.
Trump’s second impeachment was filed in 2021 when the House filed Articles of Impeachment accusing Trump of inciting an insurrection. This was a response to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists after a rally in which Trump called them to action.
As of the writing of this article, Trump’s second impeachment hearings have not yet begun.
Was President Nixon Impeached?
While the Watergate scandal is one of the most well-known Presidential scandals of the modern era, it did not end with Nixon’s impeachment.
In 1974, it was revealed that Nixon had directed people loyal to him to break into the headquarters of his political opponents in search of information. Additionally, Nixon had directed law enforcement to cover up the crime.
The House was in the process of drawing up Articles of Impeachment, but Nixon resigned as President before the charges could be brought to the Senate.
What Does Impeachment Mean? Summary and Takeaways
As a quick recap, here’s what you need to know about what happens when a president is impeached:
- Impeachment is the process through which a U.S. President, Vice President, or other federal civil officers can be removed from office
- The impeachment process is outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
- Impeachable officials can be impeached for three things: bribery, treason, or high crimes and misdemeanors
- A President is impeached when a simple majority (51 percent or more) of the House of Representatives votes in favor of Articles of Impeachment
- Once a President is impeached, the President goes to trial in the Senate. Senators serve as the jury and hear the case against the President.
- Two-thirds of Senators must find the President guilty in order to remove them from office. If the President is found guilty, they are removed from office immediately. Without a two-thirds majority, the President is acquitted and returns to their duties.
And while three U.S. Presidents have been impeached, as of the writing of this article, no President has been found guilty of impeachable offenses and removed from office!
- If you want to learn more about how the U.S. political system works, be sure to check out this guide to checks and balances and this explainer on how the Executive Branch can limits the powers of the Judicial Branch.
- Impeachment is part of the American democratic process. To learn more about what a democracy is—and how it’s different from a republic—check out this article.
- If you found this article because you’re studying for your AP exams, then you’re in luck! We have lots more resources to help you do well on your AP Government test. Don’t miss this comprehensive review guide, this compilation of the best AP Gov study notes, and this walkthrough of the FRQs.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.