Impeachment ≠ Guilty
People don't seem to understand the meaning of an ‘impeachment’. Some think it's when the President is removed from office. Others believe it's when the President is officially charged with a crime. Neither is correct, but if you thought it was, you are not alone.
According to an Insider poll, while fifty four percent of Americans said that they knew what an impeachment was, only thirty percent were actually able to correctly define it.
So, what does it mean? While impeachment is an important and historical act, it is really only the beginning of removing and punishing, according to Article Two, Section Four of the Constitution, “[t]he President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States.” This means that almost all government officials, from Supreme Court Justices to Senators to Presidents can be impeached. An official is impeached when an article or articles of impeachment are presented against them in the House of Representatives, the larger of the two bodies of Congress, and are voted for by a majority of the Members.
An Article of Impeachment is a document that accuses an official of, according to Article Two, Section Four of the U.S. Constitution, “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Only fifty percent plus one of the Members of the House have to vote in favor of the article(s) for them to then be sent to the Senate. Once sent to the Senate, a formal trial is begun.
The Vice President, or the Senate Pro Tempore, the stand-in, usually presides over the trial, unless it is the impeachment of a sitting President, in which case the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides. According to Article One, Section Three of the US Constitution, each Senator swears an “Oath or Affirmation” which states, “I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of…”, the name of the person being impeached would be stated, “... I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: so help me God.”
After the defense and prosecution make their cases, Senators vote whether or not to convict the impeached official of the crimes with which he or she has been accused. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the official is removed from office. He or she can also be barred from holding office in the future, and punished in other ways through a separate vote after the vote to convict. If fewer than two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the official is acquitted.
There is no legal punishment for simply being impeached. When we think of impeachment, the first person that comes to mind for many is the 37th President, Richard Nixon. This may be the most commonly mistaken fact about any President. President Nixon was never actually impeached for the Watergate scandal. Although Articles of Impeachment were drafted, he resigned before they could be voted on by the House of Representatives. Thus, he is the only President in history to have resigned, but even then, he was not impeached.
Only three presidents have ever been impeached. President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's VP who became president after his assassination, was impeached in 1868 for firing the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, which went against the Tenure of Office Act. The act didn’t allow the President to remove a cabinet member without the permission of the Senate. It was deemed unconstitutional in 1926 and repealed. Miraculously, the Senate was only one vote shy of convicting President Johnson, with a vote of 35 in favor to 19 opposed.
It did not happen again for almost 130 years when the second impeachment in American history took place against President Bill Clinton in 1998. President Clinton was impeached for perjury for lying under oath about his sexual encounter with Monica Lewinsky, and for obstruction of justice. He was acquitted by the Senate, for perjury 45 guilty to 55 not-guilty, and for obstruction of justice 50 guilty to 50 not-guilty.
The most recent -- and most impeached president ever -- is President Donald Trump. He was first impeached in 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for asking Ukrainian President Zelensky to give him political dirt on then candidate and now President Joe Biden. He was acquitted by the Senate, 48 guilty to 52 not-guilty, and 47 guilty to 53 not-guilty, respectively. President Trump was impeached again in 2021 for incitement of the January 6th insurrection. He was once again found not-guilty, with a vote of 57 guilty to 43 not-guilty.
While impeachment may not lead to the end of an official’s tenure and is not the same as finding someone guilty, it likely makes future generations both suspicious of the official’s accomplishments and more acutely aware of his or her failures. In terms of legacy, it is an indelible stain on the record of that person’s time in office.