Hey, you know what it’s time to talk about? Impeachment! Totally from a legal point of view, no political agenda here, la-la-la.

Let’s be clear on the terminology. In the US, impeachment is the bringing of formal charges against a government official, by the US House of Representatives. Impeachment is not a guilty finding–it’s only the beginning of the process similar to an indictment in a criminal case. Government officials may be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Whatever that means; the Constitution doesn’t specify.

Impeachment happens when a simple majority of the House votes to bring articles of impeachment. These will specify the offenses with which the official is being charged. The trial itself is held in the Senate. If two-thirds or more of the Senate finds the official guilty, he is removed from office. He may face additional punishments as well, such as being barred from holding future offices. An guilty finding in an impeachment case won’t send the official to prison, but ordinary criminal charges may also be brought against him.

Impeachment can be politically fraught, which helps explain why it has been used rarely. Only two US presidents have been impeached–Johnson and Clinton–and both were acquitted in the Senate. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. A handful of federal judges have been impeached (including one Supreme Court Justice, Chase, who was acquitted).

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the articles of impeachment against Clinton and Nixon both included accusations of obstruction of justice, among other things. So, you know, it’s fairly well settled that presidents¬†can be charged with that, despite claims otherwise.


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