How the impeachment process works

House speaker Nancy Pelosi announces the House of Representatives will launch a formal inquiry to investigate whether to impeach US president Donald Trump.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi announces the House of Representatives will launch a formal inquiry to investigate whether to impeach US president Donald Trump.
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It’s finally happening. Democratic lawmakers say they have reached their breaking point. And so the US House of Representatives will formally look into the impeachment of Donald Trump.

The process, which is straightforward, could be a long one. Here’s how it works:

House members get the ball rolling

Any one legislator in the 435-member House of Representatives can initiate impeachment by introducing a resolution, like they would any other bill, or they can resolve together to begin an inquiry. Either way, the House Judiciary Committee, or a special committee appointed by the House speaker, then investigates and builds a case for impeachment. This is called a formal impeachment inquiry, and it’s what House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced today would begin.

If the committee thinks it has a case, impeachment will be put to a vote. It’s likely that Pelosi—who has been hesitant to kickstart this whole process—already believes the Democratic majority has a case. Only a simple majority of the full House is needed to adopt articles of impeachment. The case then goes to the Senate for a trial that would remove the president if he is found guilty.

Senators try impeachment cases

The House chooses Judiciary Committee members to act as prosecutors, and a proceeding is held before the 100-member Senate, which is led now by Republicans.

The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial, making rulings on motions, objections, the admissibility of evidence, and the like, while senators act as a jury, considering what’s presented. The president can represent himself or hire any counselor desired.

Conviction requires a two-thirds majority vote. Upon a conviction—which has never happened—the Supreme Court could hear a presidential appeal; the chief justice would be recused and the proceedings would be reviewed by the remaining justices.

Conviction consequences are limited

A conviction removes the executive, but that hasn’t happened yet in US presidential history. Theoretically, the Senate can also vote to bar a convicted official from ever holding a federal office again.

The Senate cannot impose a criminal conviction on the president. Any criminal charges and other consequences would have to arise separately, and be prosecuted in the courts.

There’s also been much debate about whether the Senate can impose a punishment short of removal, like censure. The issue arose during Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings but wasn’t finally answered.

The history of presidential impeachment

Impeachment is rare, and conviction even more so, because it’s not supposed to be easy to remove an elected  president. Impeachment exists as protection, just in case things go really wrong at the White House, or seem to. If it was too easy to remove a president, the government would be in constant conflict.

Clinton was impeached in 1998 (paywall), charged with perjury and obstruction of justice related to sexual relationships outside of his marriage. The Senate acquitted him.

Richard Nixon, elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972, resigned ahead of a likely impeachment. Based on Watergate—the scandal over the Republican president’s involvement in the coverup of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters—the House Judiciary Committee adopted impeachment articles against him in 1974. When he lost the support of Republican leaders, Nixon quit, the first and only president to do so.

The 25th Amendment dictates presidential succession, and Nixon was replaced by vice president Gerald Ford, who in 1973 replaced the original Nixon VP, Spiro Agnew, after his resignation stemming from a political-payoffs case. Ford served until 1977.

The only other president impeached was Andrew Johnson in 1868. He was accused of illegally replacing war secretary Edwin M. Stanton, among other claims. He was acquitted in the Senate and remained in office.