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Impeachment is a formal accusation, not removal from office. The House of Representatives can impeach a U.S. President with a majority vote, but the Senate decides on conviction. Only two Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached, but neither were removed from office. Impeachment can result from "high crimes and misdemeanors," a term open to interpretation.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to focus on in this video is the idea of impeachment, what it is and how it works, with a little bit of historical background. So, before we go into impeachment, let's just review some key ideas about the US government. We have this idea of separation of powers. Where you have these three, somewhat independent branches of government. You have the Executive Branch, headed by the President of the United States, in charge of running the state, running the government. You have the Legislative Branch, which in the United States has two houses, you have the House of Representatives and you have the Senate. And it's in charge of passing laws and deciding on the budget that the government, that the Executive Branch uses to run the government. And we have the Judicial Branch, which is the US Supreme Court. And related to this idea of separation of powers, they're not completely independent, but it's designed to be in a way that not one group or no one group can overrun the others. And what helps them do this is this idea of checks and balances. That for example, the Legislative can pass a law, but the Executive Branch can veto it, but the Legislative can override that veto. You have the Judicial Branch that can decide on the constitutionality of a law that the Legislative Branch passes or even an action that the Executive Branch takes. And it can even interpret the laws that have already been passed. The Executive Branch can appointment the members of the US Supreme Court. So, you see this idea of checks and balances. And perhaps the biggest check that the Legislative Branch has, is the idea of impeachment. So what is it? So, some people believe, or are under the impression, that impeachment is, if someone gets impeached they are removed from office, that is not the case. Impeachment is really a formal accusation, in legal terms you might hear the word indictment. Indictment is a formal accusation. And so if the US House of Representatives with the majority vote decides to make a formal accusation against, say, the President, that would be impeachment. But even if that passes, then the Senate will try the President, to decide if they will actually be convicted. So, once the indictment happens and this would be the House that does this with just a simple majority, then the Senate, so this is the Senate right over here, they're going to decide whether to convict the individual, which could be the President, or they might acquit, which is saying that formal accusation is not valid. Now another thing to appreciate is, the Senate can't send the President to jail, but what they can do is remove them from office and keep them from holding office in the future. Now historically, only two President have been impeached. This right over here is a drawing of the impeachment proceedings for President Andrew Johnson in 1869, 17th President of the United States. And he was impeached, which means the House of Representatives, had a majority saying that he did a high crime and misdemeanor, and we'll talk more about that in a little bit. Which officially by doing that indictment that made it an impeachment, so he has been officially impeached. They claim that he violated the Tenure of Office Act, which prevented the President from firing cabinet members without congressional permission, but he decided to fire his Secretary of War, which is now called the Secretary of Defense, without congressional approval and so they impeached him. But he did not get convicted, he was acquitted, the Senate was not able to get the two-thirds majority. The other President to be impeached is much more recent. This is President Bill Clinton in 1998, the US House of Representatives with a simple majority was able to impeach him on accusations of obstruction of justice, so that you can imagine is something that prevents a prosecutor from, say, finding information and perjury, which is lying under oath. But once again, even though he was impeached, when it went to the Senate, they weren't able to get the two-thirds super majority, to remove him from office. So, neither of them, even though they were both impeached, were actually removed from office. The closest that a President actually got removed from office from something that was like impeachment was Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon was about to be impeached, but he resigned instead of having to go through the impeachment proceedings and then possibly getting convicted. But to really appreciate what impeachment is, let's just go straight to the original text in the Constitution. This is from Article I, Section 2, Clause 5, The House of Representatives shall chuse, and this is actually how they spelled the word choose in the Constitution. The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment. The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. So, once again the impeachment is just the formal accusation it actually gets tried by the Senate to decide if the person is actually guilty of that accusation. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside. So, once again, we often associate impeachment with the President, but this is making clear it's not just about impeaching the President. When it is the President, who's being tried, it would be the Chief Justice who presides over the proceedings, in the Senate. And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. So, in the House, if they can get to over 50%, then the accusation is formal, the person is essentially being indicted, which is called impeachment, but they're not going to be convicted without two thirds of the Senate. I encourage you to think about why the threshold here is higher. Why the founders of our country decided to make this threshold two thirds instead of a simple majority. Judgment in Cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust, or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to the Law. So, here they're saying, the most that the Senate can do, through the impeachment proceedings is remove them from office and maybe prevent them from holding any other office, but they can't send them to jail, the same way the traditional legal system could. But if someone really did commit a crime, they still will be subject to the traditional legal system. Finally, we see here in Article II, 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. And there's actually two points of ambiguity here. Who falls under all civil officers of the United States? Does a member of congress fall into that category? This is actually a matter of some debate. And what is a high crime and misdemeanor? Most people understand what treason and bribery are. But what is a high crime and misdemeanor? And this has been subject of debate. What is an impeachable offense? And to answer that question, I'll leave you with a quote from Gerald Ford, who became President when Richard Nixon resigned because he was about to be impeached and this is what he had to say. "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the "House of Representatives considers it to be at a given "moment in history; "conviction results from whatever offense "or offenses two-thirds of the other body," the Senate, "considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal "of the accused from office." So, he's taking a very pragmatic stance here. You have this notion of high crimes and misdemeanors, what does that mean? And Gerald Ford is saying, well, whatever the House of Representatives thinks that means. And so an interesting question is, how susceptible does this make the notion of impeachment to politics? And is that okay? And maybe the founders of our country recognized that and that's why they had a higher threshold for actual conviction and removal of office in the Senate.