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13 Things People Get Wrong About Impeachment

Turns out, it's a very misunderstood political process.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

President Richard Nixon 1970. 37th President of the Unites States of America. Library of CongressUniversal History Archive/Shutterstock

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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It’s unclear whether someone who has been impeached can be reelected

You’d think that if someone has been impeached, they would be barred from seeking reelection, but that’s not necessarily the case. The constitution says that the only punishment the Senate may impose on an official upon conviction is “removal from office, and disqualification to hold…any office…under the United States.” That may sound straightforward, but according to Brennan, it’s unclear whether that “and” indicates that these are two possible punishments (removal, and disqualification) or a single punishment (ie. that removal means disqualification). “The Supreme Court has not issued a clear interpretation of this clause,” Brennan tells Reader’s Digest. “If an official were removed from office through impeachment, and subsequently re-elected, the case would almost certainly come before the Supreme Court, unless the Senate had clearly indicated that ‘disqualification’ was part of its punishment.”

Presidential Seal on podium in front of the South Portico of the White House, the Truman Balcony, in Washington, DC on May 7, 2007Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Impeachment isn’t a way to remove a president if they are disliked

Contrary to what it might sound like by the way the word “impeachment” is thrown around, the president can’t be impeached simply for bad behavior or because Congress disagrees with his policy positions, Mike Purdy, presidential historian and author of 101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other — and What It Means to Us tells Reader’s Digest. “Impeachment and conviction must meet the constitutional standard,” he explains. “That being said, impeachment and conviction are ultimately political processes and there is some ambiguity about what constitutes ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ Or as Gerald Ford once put it when he served in Congress, ‘an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.'”

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The founding fathers didn’t envision impeachment playing out the way it has

For starters, the founding fathers did not anticipate the rise of political parties, and thought that each of the three branches of government would serve as a check and balance on the other branches, Purdy explains. Instead, in our current political environment, loyalties lie within political parties rather than branches of government. Also, as he points out, “the founding fathers did not envision impeachment and conviction as a way to undo the results of an election, but as a means to protect the integrity of the constitutional framework established in the constitution.” You may be shocked by the U.S. Constitution myths most Americans believe.

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But, we are not in a constitutional crisis

The framers of the constitution anticipated that there might be leaders who abuse power, and they provided impeachment as a tool to deal with it, Peter Hanson, PhD associate professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa and author of Too Weak to Govern: Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate tells Reader’s Digest. “The House of Representatives is currently following the constitutionally prescribed path for addressing allegations that power has been abused and the public trust has been violated,” he explains. “A real constitutional crisis requires the breakdown of the constitutional system, such as if the president would refuse to leave office despite being convicted by the Senate.” Next, test yourself to see how much you know about the U.S. Constitution.

Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.