13 Things People Get Wrong About Impeachment
Turns out, it's a very misunderstood political process.
Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
What is impeachment?
Impeachment is one of those things we learn about in high school social studies class, then tend to forget about. But when impeachment is in the news, it's hard to ignore, and could mean some serious consequences for the government. Reader's Digest spoke with political scientists and policy experts to find out about what really happens during the impeachment process. No president is allowed to do these 10 everyday things while in office.
Impeachment does not mean an immediate removal from office
There's a common misconception that when a president is impeached, they are immediately fired and removed from office. As it turns out, what we often refer to as "impeachment" is actually two separate processes with several steps within it, Jaye Pool, PhD, an independent political observer and host of the Potstirrer Podcast tells Reader's Digest. "Impeachment is the process where the House of Representatives investigates and essentially chooses to indict the president or charge him with offenses that could disqualify him from the presidency," she explains. "These charges are referred to as articles of impeachment." Removal, or conviction, on the other hand, is the process where the Senate holds a trial and, by a two-thirds vote, can vote to remove the president from office. If you were wrong about impeachment, here are 25 other words that don't mean what you think they do.
Impeachment does not mean a president has been found guilty of the charged offense(s)
Many people see impeachment as a static event, rather than a complex process, according to Michael Nardi, PhD, a political consultant and president of iPublicPolicy. "The process is a bit confusing for most, and it is evolving," he tells Reader's Digest. "For example, the current process for President Trump is a bit different than the impeachment of President Clinton, as the U.S. House is using six committees to present evidence to the House Judiciary Committee, which will then vote to decide if this issue goes to the full House."
Impeachable offenses aren't necessarily illegal
According to Pool, the U.S. constitution states that disqualifying offenses for impeachment are "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." While most often, charges that are levied against a president are for illegal activity, this isn't necessarily the case. Still confused over what's legal? Here are 18 things you think are illegal, but aren't.
Richard Nixon was not impeached
Much of the commentary in the recent press has drawn parallels between the current political situation and American attitudes towards President Richard Nixon's impeachment in 1974, Pool notes. However, Nixon announced his resignation on August 9, 1974, before any articles of impeachment were issued. "He likely would have been impeached and convicted if he had not resigned," Pool explains. In the mood for more presidential trivia? Here are 52 astonishing facts you never knew about U.S. presidents.
But three U.S. presidents have been impeached
To date, three presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2019. Jim Ronan, PhD an adjunct professor of political science at Villanova University tells Reader's Digest. "In Johnson's case, he was saved by a single vote in the Senate trial, and thus remained in office," he explains. "There was also a bit of a historical anomaly in that Senate Majority Leader Ben Wade was also next in line for the presidency, and thus was leading the proceedings that could have made him president." In Clinton's case, conviction was never a real possibility: the Senate vote was 50-50—well short of the 67 votes that are required.
People other than presidents can be impeached
The process as outlined in the U.S. Constitution applies not only to the president, but to the vice-president and other officials, including federal judges, according to Pool. "Impeachment proceedings have occurred against a handful of judges, and still fewer have been removed from office, most recently in 2010," she explains. Members of Congress are exempt from the impeachment and removal process, but they're not off the hook: Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution outlines a different process that allows for the removal of congressional representatives and senators.
A number of judges have been impeached
In addition to Johnson and Clinton, other public officials have been impeached, Bernard Brennan, PhD, assistant professor of political science at Johnson & Wales University tells Reader's Digest. They include 15 federal judges, a senator (William Blount in 1797) and a cabinet secretary (William Belknap in 1876).
If a president is removed from office, it doesn't mean a change of the party in power
As political as impeachment may be, some may forget that even if a president is removed from office, the party they represent is still in power. For example, if President Trump ultimately is removed from office, Vice President Mike Pence would become president, and Republicans would still control the White House, nominate similar sorts of federal judges, and pursue the same general policy agenda, Sam Nelson, PhD, associate professor of political science and chair of The University of Toledo Department of Political Science and Public Administration explains.
Impeachment isn't a criminal trial
Another major misconception about impeachment is the belief that it is somehow a "legal" process—like a criminal trial, Devin Schindler, JD, a constitutional law professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School tells Reader's Digest. In fact, impeachment is a political process. "The Constitution does not define the term 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' which means that the House of Representatives and the Senate ultimately get to define that term," Schindler explains.