Just when you think American politics can’t get any crazier, Donald Trump steps up and does something even more stupid; and this time, he’s getting impeached for it. This is actually the second time Donald has been impeached, which is a word you won’t hear often in British politics (although it does exist). So what does it actually mean and how does it work? Let me explain…
What does ‘impeachment’ mean?
In the US, ‘impeachment’ is the word used to describe the process of bringing criminal or civil charges against a government official. The charges brought in impeachment proceedings aren’t the same as those you’d find in a regular court, so don’t result in the “forfeiture of life, liberty or property”, but instead can remove the person from office, remove the benefits their current position supplies, and can disqualify the person from ever holding public office again.
An impeachable offence can be either criminal or civil, and there’s no set grounds for what constitutes one, but broadly speaking, such an offence would fit in one of the following three categories:
– Improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of the role or office
– Behaviour incompatible with the function and purpose of the public office
– Misusing the office for personal gain or an improper purpose.
The President, the Vice President, and anyone who is a ‘civil officer’ of the United States can be impeached, but the American Constitution that sets this out doesn’t exactly define who counts as exactly the latter.
In the UK, impeachment is a historical process and not set out in any constitution, but could theoretically still be used. It’s been discussed as recently as 2019 but has never progressed and is considered pretty much defunct.
Hasn’t Don been impeached before?
Yes! Donald Trump was impeached back in 2019 for the ‘abuse of power’ and ‘obstruction of Congress’, relating to his involvement of a foreign party into his upcoming bid for re-election (that we now didn’t go very well). In that impeachment, Trump withheld foreign aid and a White House invitation to Ukraine, and had a covert phone call with the Ukrainian President – a move that it was alleged would prompt the country to launch an investigation into Joe Biden and to promote conspiracy theories about him. That impeachment saw Trump be acquitted, although that was primarily because of a lack of Republican support and cooperation.
Has any other US President been impeached?
Donald Trump is the third US President to be impeached. The first was Andrew Johnson, in the 1800s, but more recently, in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached. Clinton was impeached for ‘perjury’, for covering up his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted.
Trump is not just the first President to have been impeached twice, but the first civil officer ever. Take that as you will!
So, what happens now?
Normally, the impeachment process takes several months, but given that Trump incited the Capitol atrocities publicly on social media, there’s no investigation required! In 2019, it took 86 days between the public learning of Trump’s actions and impeachment being initiated. In 2021, it took a week. This time around his impeachment is supported by 9 Republicans, which gives the motion much more sway than it just being supported by the opposing party.
The next step of impeachment is a trial, which happens with at the Senate, with Senators making the final decision, presided over by the Chief Justice of the United States (right now that’s John Roberts, and he’s a Republican). This might take a little while, as of course we have a new POTUS stepping in before that can happen. Technically this means that Donald won’t be a ‘civil officer’ of the Government when the trial happens, but that shouldn’t have much of an impact on it. Realistically, we can expect the trial to begin within the next six months… unless something big happens before then.
Why bother impeaching someone that’s about to leave office?
It’s true, Donald won’t still be POTUS by the time he’s either convicted or acquitted, but there’s still benefits to seeking justice. If convicted, he could be disqualified from ever running for office again, could lose his $200,000+ annual pension, and the Trump family wouldn’t receive the lifetime Secret Service detail that otherwise all previous Presidents are entitled to. Plus, of course, it’s the right thing to do – if someone incites a riotous mob to make an attack upon democracy and it results in people being killed, they should face justice for it.
Can he get out of this?
By all means, the eventual trial may well acquit Trump from the charges – it will require a two thirds majority of Senators to convict him, so 17 Republicans would have to vote with the Democrats. However, there’s lots of chatter in the media about a self-pardon; a power Trump has mentioned before he believes he has. It’s never been done before and its legality isn’t really understood; not least because no one’s ever done it before and it is a power that is mentioned specifically should not be used in the case of impeachment. But who knows? If ole Don has taught us anything, it’s that he’s not afraid to stride ahead and do shit his own way.
As ever with the Trumps, this is an ongoing saga and we have no idea how it will pan out. Keep your eyes on the news and keep your ears open… no need to check Twitter anymore 😉
The header photo of this article was taken by Chris An, for Unsplash.