The White House has been engulfed in controversy since President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey last week.
The New York Times then released an explosive report on Tuesday asserting that Trump reportedly asked Comey in February to drop the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had resigned the day before.
Trump asked Comey to “let it go” and said that Flynn was “a good guy,” the Times reported.
The Times’ report has prompted the strongest calls yet for Trump to be held to account for his actions, with a number of analysts and officials pondering the possibility of a presidential impeachment.
What does it mean to be impeached?
An impeachment is essentially a formal indictment of a government official. Being impeached does not remove an official from office; rather, it means that formal charges are being brought against them.
Two other presidents in US history have been impeached — Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Clinton was impeached in December 1998 on charges relating to perjury and obstruction of justice. The charges were brought after Clinton lied under oath about his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was eventually acquitted of all charges.
Johnson was impeached in 1868 on the primary charge that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act when he removed Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton and tried to replace him with Brevet Major General Lorenzo Thomas. Johnson was also eventually acquitted of all charges against him.
Richard Nixon was never impeached, but only because he resigned from office before he could be.
What charges can the president be impeached on?
At the federal level, officials like the president, vice president, and “all civil Officers of the United States” can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” according to Article II of the US Constitution.
While all felonies are impeachable, the reverse is not true. The Supreme Court has never formally ruled on what constitutes an impeachable offense, so “after Watergate, many people said that an impeachable offense is whatever the House and Senate think it is,” Robert Deitz, a former top counsel for the NSA and CIA, told Business Insider.
“So I could imagine people saying, ‘Look, I don’t give a damn whether what [the president] did is felonious or not. But the comment or conduct itself has brought disgrace upon the White House, and therefore, we think [the president] should be impeached for that,'” he said.
“It may be that he’s acting completely within his legal authority and yet still has abused his office in ways that might rise to the level of impeachable offenses,” Keith E. Whittington, an expert on presidential impeachment and professor of politics at Princeton University, told Business Insider. “But that would have to be something that would need to be explored through congressional hearings,” he said.
How does the impeachment process work?
In the case of a presidential impeachment, the onus is on Congress to bring charges.
The House of Representatives drafts articles of impeachment, while the Senate holds trial.
The presidential impeachment process can be initiated by any member of the House.
The Judiciary committee typically reviews impeachment resolutions calling for the impeachment of particular individuals, while the Rules committee presides over impeachment resolutions calling for investigations into whether certain conduct may be impeachable, before sending that resolution to the Judiciary committee if it feels that conduct was objectionable.
The Judiciary committee ultimately decides whether there are grounds for impeachment. If a majority of its members agree, the committee drafts formal articles of impeachment, which lay out the specific charges being brought against an official. Those articles are then brought and debated before the full House of Representatives.
The House can consider each article of impeachment individually, or it can look at the resolution as a whole. If a simple majority of House members vote for impeachment based on any article or the full resolution, the impeachment goes forward to the Senate.
The Senate is responsible for holding trial over the charges. Typically, Senate trials are overseen by the vice president. But in the case of a presidential impeachment, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial, which unfolds in the same way a criminal trial would in a courtroom. Members of the House, who vote to impeach the official, act as the prosecutors, while the official being impeached is defended by an attorney or attorneys of their choosing.
After hearing the trial, the Senate typically deliberates in private, the way a jury does. In order for an official to be removed from office, 2/3 of the Senate must vote to convict them. If that official is convicted, they are immediately removed from office and may be prohibited from holding future office as well. A conviction also opens the door to the possibility of a criminal prosecution.