Impeachment: How to end a presidency early

The White House is in political turmoil following the criminal conviction of two men with close professional ties to US President Donald Trump.

Mr Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen today pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws while his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud at virtually the same time in a separate trial.   

The dual scandals once again have Democrats calling for impeachment, but as history shows, the President's critics have a hard road ahead if they want to remove him from office early.

What is impeachment and how does it work?


Impeachment is the process by which lawmakers in the US can remove a President before he serves his full term.

The constitution states they can do this if the President has 'committed treason, bribery, high crimes or other misdemeanours.'

However these terms are notoriously open to interpretation, with US President Gerald Ford once describing an impeachable offence as "whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

The process begins when documents describing exact charges against the President, known as 'articles of impeachment', are brought before the House of Representatives for a vote. If a majority of lawmakers vote yes, the impeachment proceedings begin in earnest.

Next the US Senate acts as jury in a trial presided by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Members of Congress who supported impeachment act as prosecutors while the President is largely free to determine his own legal defence team.

If two-thirds of the Senate find the President guilty at the end of the trial, he is removed from office and the vice president, in this case Mike Pence, takes over.

It is important to differentiate between impeachment and removal from office. Impeachment is similar to being indicted, and in legals terms essentially means the President is charged but not convicted.

Only two Presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither were actually removed from office as both were acquitted by Senate at trial.  

Richard Nixon was widely believed to have resigned in order to avoid removal by impeachment following the WaterGate scandal in 1974.

Impeachment: How to end a presidency early
Photo credit: Getty.

The barriers to Trump's impeachment


Currently Republicans control both houses of Congress, meaning impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump would require significant support from within his own party. Articles of impeachment were already drafted against the President earlier this year, but lacked enough support to progress to trial.

The results of the midterm elections, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of 100 Senate seats are contested, will largely determine the plausibility of further impeachment proceedings.

If Democrats have a net gain of 23 seats in the House of Representatives, they will gain a majority, or 'take back the house', making at least the first stage of impeachment much easier.

The 25th Amendment


If impeachment fails, there is another clause built into the constitution which allows for the removal of a President. If the Vice-President and a majority of Cabinet decide the President is unable to fulfill his duties, he can be removed from office.

However if the President contests this, two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives must side with the Vice-President, making this option as unlikely as impeachment, at least for now.

The US midterm elections begin Tuesday November 6.

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