An Impeachment Explainer

As the U.S. House of Representatives begins to consider impeaching President Donald Trump, a Tufts political scientist details the process and precedents
The U.S. Capitol building. As the U.S. House of Representatives begins to consider impeaching President Donald Trump, a Tufts political scientist details the process and precedents.
“It is important to note that impeachment is not synonymous with removal from office,” said Jeffrey Taliaferro. Photo: Depositphotos
September 25, 2019

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This week, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would initiate a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, alleging that he betrayed his oath of office and the nation’s security by seeking to enlist a foreign power to impugn political rival Joe Biden for his own gain. It would be the fourth such impeachment inquiry of a president in U.S. history.

Tufts Now turned to Jeffrey Taliaferro, an associate professor of political science, to explain the process. An expert in international relations and national security, Taliaferro is author of Defending Frenemies: Alliances, Politics, and Nuclear Nonproliferation in US Foreign Policy, which was published this month. He has held a research fellowship at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo and a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Taliaferro explains the history and process of impeachment, including the prospect for being removed from office if the president were to be impeached, and what to look for as proceedings get underway.

Tufts Now: What is impeachment?

Jeffrey Taliaferro: Impeachment is a process whereby a legislative body levels charges against a public official. It is akin to an indictment, although it is fundamentally a political process, not a judicial one. It is important to note that impeachment is not synonymous with removal from office. Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach the president of the United States and any other civil officer of the United States, such as the vice president, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, and lower federal court judges.

A majority vote in the House is required to approve articles of impeachment. Article I gives the Senate the sole power to try impeachment cases. Two-thirds of the Senate most vote to convict an impeached official, whereupon that official is removed from office.

Article II of the Constitution says a president can be removed from office if impeached and convicted of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What are “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

The House Judiciary Committee “would have to approve articles of impeachment against President Trump, which it could by majority vote,” said Jeffrey Taliaferro. “Those articles would be referred to the full House of Representatives.” Photo: Kelvin MaThe U.S. Constitution does not define what offenses constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In practice, the House has approved and/or considered articles of impeachment against three previous presidents, one Supreme Court justice, and several federal judges for alleged offenses including obstruction of justice, perjury, corruption, and deliberate non-compliance with acts of Congress.

Are there historical precedents for the alleged offenses we have heard about in media accounts?

Previous presidents of the United States have faced accusations of obstructing justice and perjury. But the short answer to this question is no. The scope of the impeachment inquiry announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to be determined. The House Judiciary Committee, which would have to approve articles of impeachment against President Trump, had already opened an investigation. The House committees on Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Oversight, Ways and Means, and Financial Services, which have been holding hearings on various allegations of wrongdoing by the president and members of his administration, have been directed by Pelosi to coordinate their investigations with the Judiciary Committee.

Additionally, the latest allegations against Trump—namely that he pressured Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to provide damaging information on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, and withheld U.S. foreign military assistance as leverage—is unprecedented.

How many presidents have been impeached?

Only two presidents of the United States have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 for dismissing Edward Stanton as secretary of war in violation of the Tenure in Office Act, and Bill Clinton in 1999 for lying under oath about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Both Johnson and Clinton were subsequently acquitted in their Senate trials. In August 1974, Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in the face of almost certain impeachment by the House for his role in ordering the cover-up of the Committee to Reelect the President burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

What is the impeachment process?

The House of Representatives would have to approve articles of impeachment against President Trump by a simple majority vote—218 out of 435 representatives. If that happened, the Speaker would appoint house managers to present the case for conviction to the Senate. In effect, the house managers would be the prosecutorial team.

Since the impeachment official would be the president of the United States and since the vice president of the United States is the president of the Senate, the Chief Justice of the United States would preside over the Senate trial. The president would be represented by legal counsel.

As in a criminal trial, the prosecution and the defense would call their own witnesses and cross examine the witnesses for the other side. At the end of the day, the full Senate would have to vote whether or not to convict. It would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate—sixty-seven out of 100 senators—to convict and remove Trump from office, whereupon Vice President Mike Pence would become president. The Senate cannot impose criminal penalties; however, former officials who have been removed from office after a Senate trial may still be liable for criminal prosecution.

How does the process start?

The process starts in the House Judiciary Committee. That committee would have to approve articles of impeachment against President Trump, which it could by majority vote. Those articles would be referred to the full House of Representatives.

How likely is it that impeachment would lead to removal?

At this stage, it is quite unlikely that the Senate would muster the sixty-seven votes necessary to convict Trump and remove him from office. The Republicans hold fifty-three seats and the Democrats hold forty-five seats. In addition, two independents—Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont—caucus with the Democrats. Republican senators in the 116th Congress have either stood with Trump or gone out of their way to avoid incurring his wrath.

If the president were impeached, would that make the president liable for indictment?

No, impeachment per se would not make the president liable for indictment. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has standing guidelines, dating from 1974, which state that a criminal indictment cannot be brought against a sitting president of the United States. Once a president leaves office, however, he/she could be indicted in a criminal court.

Anything else you think is important to watch during this process?

The White House released the unredacted Memorandum of the Telephone Conversation (TELCON) between Trump and Zelensky from 15 July 2019. The TELCON shows that Trump asked Zelensky to coordinate with Attorney General William Barr in opening an investigation into the activities of Joe Biden and Hunter Biden in Ukraine. The testimony of the Intelligence Community whistleblower before the House Permanent Selection Committee on Intelligence will be key.

Kalimah Redd Knight can be reached at kalimah.knight@tufts.edu.