There are four legal reasons for impeachment. Impeachment is the political process by which a legislative body levels charges against a government official. It is a formal process that begins with an accusation, or impeachment, against the official and can ultimately lead to their removal from office if found guilty.
In the United States, the impeachment process is defined in the Federal Constitution and can occur at both the federal and state levels. However, the most visible and widely discussed process is presidential impeachment.
At the federal level, the House of Representatives has the sole power to impeach federal officials, including the President, Vice President, and any civil officer of the United States. The charges brought against the official by the House Judiciary Committee are called articles of impeachment, and they must accuse the official of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.“
If the House approves the articles of impeachment by a simple majority vote, this equates to an indictment in criminal law. The process then moves to a trial held in the Senate, with Senators acting as the jury. A two-thirds majority is required to convict and remove the official from office.
The Impeachment Process
The impeachment process acts as an important check on the Executive Branch, allowing Congress to remove federal officials for serious political offenses and misconduct in office even before their term expires. Grounds for impeachment include abuse of power, corruption, negligence in constitutional duties, or actions resulting in loss of public trust.
At the state level, each state constitution defines the impeachment process for state officials. While the process is similar, details like voting majorities, which bodies can impeach, and judicial precedent vary between states. Impeachment at this level is less common than federally but can be used to remove governors, Supreme Court judges, and other officials for misconduct.
In summary, impeachment is the formal accusation of wrongdoing against an official and can start them on a path toward removal from office. The US Constitution defines it for federal use against the President, Vice President, and other civil officers.
President Andrew Johnson was the first president to face impeachment, but he would not be the last. Bill Clinton and Donald Trump also faced impeachment proceedings while in office.
According to Constitutional provisions, there are four legal reasons that the House of Representatives can impeach a president:
Conduct constituting treason is explicitly defined in the Constitution as levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to its enemies. It is considered one of the gravest offenses against the state that a president can commit.
For example, if a president was found to be plotting with another country to wage war against the US or sharing classified intelligence that could put American troops or citizens at risk, it would likely be considered treason. The consequences for treason are severe – potentially including execution.
Bribery involves a president soliciting, accepting, or agreeing to receive money or gifts in exchange for influence or favors. This could include anything from accepting campaign donations in return for political appointments to demanding bribes to sign or veto legislation.
Any improper or personal gain could be viewed as bribery. Bribery is considered a serious abuse of power and betrayal of public trust, especially in the case of a president. The Founders feared foreign powers could try to manipulate the president through bribes.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors
This broad category covers abuses of power, corruption, and other misconduct that violates the public trust. There is no specific definition, but it refers to serious abuses of power that undermine the integrity of the presidency or the rule of law.
For example, perjury, obstruction of justice, financial crimes, such as providing false information on federal income tax forms, and misuse of office for personal or political gain could potentially count as impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors. Ultimately, Congress decides whether the president’s actions meet this vague standard.
Obstruction of Justice
If the president is found to have deliberately interfered with investigations or otherwise obstructed justice and the rule of law, it could rise to an impeachable offense. This includes acts like destroying evidence, intimidating witnesses, or firing investigators to impede an investigation.
Obstruction of justice cuts to the heart of the president’s duties to uphold the Constitution and faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress. Attempting to place himself above the law can constitute an impeachable abuse of power.
While treason and bribery are well-defined, “high crimes and misdemeanors” cover many potential abuses of power. But in all cases, impeachable offenses involve serious corruption, misconduct, or negligence in the duties of the office that threaten Constitutional order or the rule of law.
Ultimately, it is up to the House of Representatives to determine if the president’s actions meet the impeachment standard set out in the Constitution.
The Constitution’s Impeachment Provisions Stands as a Safeguard for Democracy
The impeachment provision in the US Constitution stands as an important safeguard to protect the republic from corruption and abuse of power. It provides a mechanism for Congress to hold even the highest elected officials and government officers accountable for serious wrongdoing and misconduct while in office.
The constitutional framers intentionally made the impeachment provision broad and flexible, not limiting it to just crimes as defined by statute law. This allows Congress to respond to abuses of power that may not be a federal criminal offense but still threaten the integrity of democracy and public trust in government.
Impeachment proceedings are meant to address what Alexander Hamilton called the “abuse or violation of some public trust” and injuries done “immediately to the society itself.” The standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” was intended to capture betrayals of the duties of office and oath to the Constitution.
Thus, the Constitution’s impeachment provision stands as a last defense against tyranny and despotism. Providing a way to remove federal officials from power through an orderly, deliberative process helps ensure no one is above the law and that republican government endures.
Impeachment is a serious political procedure. While the events of the past few years have made the impeachment process seem more commonplace, it is rare for a president to get impeached.