Can President Donald Trump Be Impeached? How the Process Works

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the U.S. healthcare system at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport in Cincinnati on June 7. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“Are you allowed to impeach a president for gross incompetence?”

That good question was put to the people of Twitter back in 2014 by a businessman named Donald Trump. He was talking about then-President Barack Obama.  

We’re not sure if he ever got his answer. But now Trump himself is in the White House, and many of his opponents hope that impeachment—the process by which a president can be removed if accused of serious misconduct—is the way to get rid of him before the next election in 2020.

Related: What is obstruction of justice? How Comey testimony could land Trump in impeachment trouble

How would such a process work? What would make an impeachment attempt successful? How did it work in the past? Here’s what you need to know:

How does impeachment work?

The vulnerability of the president to impeachment is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, article 11 section 4. Here’s the relevant bit:

“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

As the section makes clear, a president can be shunted out of power if found to have done something very bad (if somewhat loosely defined): “Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

If so, the House of Representatives will vote on one or more articles of impeachment, and if at least one of these passes on a majority vote, the president is impeached, but is not yet removed from office—that can only happen after the case passes to the Senate.

After the House has impeached the president, the chief justice of the Supreme Court will preside over a trial in the Senate, during which a team from the House functions as the prosecution and the president has defense lawyers.

If at least two-thirds of senators find the president guilty, he or she is forced out of office, and the vice president takes over.

Why has impeachment happened in the past?

Two presidents have been impeached; the Democrats Bill Clinton, in 1998, and Andrew Johnson, in 1868. Neither was found guilty by the Senate in their subsequent trials.

Republican Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment following the Watergate scandal in 1974, but resigned before the vote on his impeachment could take place.

Clinton was impeached on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice over an affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky; Clinton had initially denied the relationship, before later admitting it.

Against Johnson, 11 articles of impeachment were passed by the House after his policies for reconstruction of the South following the Civil War angered radical Republicans in Congress. Among other things, he was accused of illegally removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a critic, from office.

Could President Trump be impeached?

The first formal attempt to impeach Trump is being prepared by a House Democrat, Al Green.  

Green has drafted articles of impeachment against Trump. He contends that the president deserves to be removed for allegedly engaging in obstruction of justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey during the agency’s investigation into Russia’s possible meddling in the 2016 election.

But with the House under Republican control, and many Republicans appearing to rally behind Trump even as accusations of improper conduct surrounding his dealings with Comey grow, getting articles of impeachment through the House is likely to pose a significant challenge.