With Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing the commencement of an impeachment enquiry – the first since Bill Clinton more than 20 years ago – we are about to embark on a potentially long and messy political fight that may end up with a new president.
Impeachment, in this case, is throwing the president out of their job for committing a ‘high crime or misdemeanour’.
In 1998 Bill Clinton was faced with impeachment proceedings for lying under oath and obstruction of justice, both of which likely come under the category of high crimes.
The process for impeachment begins with an impeachment enquiry. In the cases of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon – who was forced from office in 1974 over obstruction charges – proceedings began with the House Judiciary Committee reviewing the evidence and recommending articles of impeachment to the full house.
The House of Representatives could simply vote on articles of impeachment without committee scrutiny, but it is more likely that Speaker Pelosi will adhere to the procedure followed in previous cases.
If the House of Representatives vote for the articles of impeachment (only one of these articles needs to pass) the president will be impeached.
But that is just the beginning. After the House vote to impeach the proceedings will move to the Senate – the United States upper house of the legislature.
A team of lawmakers from the House of Representatives (known as managers) will then act as the prosecution in a trial, with a legal team working for the president as his defence. The Senate will act as a Jury throughout this process.
Each of the articles of impeachment passed from the House to the Senate will be considered by the ‘Jury’.
Following the proceedings, the Senate will be asked to vote on the president’s guilt for each article, if at least two thirds (66 senators out of 100) find the president guilty of any of the alleged ‘high crimes or misdemeanours’ they will be removed from office; the vice president will assume the role of president.
It is likely that the House of Representatives would pass the necessary articles of impeachment for a Senate trial, with a Democratic majority and many Republican’s falling on the side of a trial, it is likely to pass with ease.
The Senate will be more difficult for impeachment. Although supposed to be neutral in a trial, the Senate holds a Republican majority, and finding enough Republican votes to join the Democrats in impeachment will likely prove difficult.
In 1998 Bill Clinton was found to be not guilty by the Senate trial, remaining in office until the end of his term in 2001. Richard Nixon pre-empted being removed from office by resigning before the verdict of the Senate was reached; this was prompted by news that he was almost certainly set to be found guilty.
The only other American president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson in 1868 who escaped conviction by just a single vote on one of the articles brought to the Senate.