Impeachment Explainer

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The impeachment debate is back in the news as House Republicans have voted to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a 214-213 vote on Feb. 13, 2024. Mayorkas is only the second cabinet member to ever be impeached (the first was William W. Belknap, U.S. Secretary of War, who was impeached and acquitted in 1876). [23]

Mayorkas was impeached on two articles: 1. “willfull and systemic refusal to comply with the law,” specifically immigration law, which contributed to the “border catastrophe,” according to House Republicans and 2. “breach of public trust” for not “faithfully discharging” his duties. Mia Ehrenberg, Homeland Security Department spokesperson, countered, “While Secretary Mayorkas was helping a group of Republican and Democratic Senators develop bipartisan solutions to strengthen border security and get needed resources for enforcement, House Republicans have wasted months with this baseless, unconstitutional impeachment…. Without a shred of evidence or legitimate Constitutional grounds, and despite bipartisan opposition, House Republicans have falsely smeared a dedicated public servant.” [23]

The House of Representatives was scheduled to deliver the articles of impeachment against Mayorkas to the Senate on Apr. 10, 2024, but delayed the delivery to Apr. 16, due to concerns the Senate would not commit to a trial. On Apr. 17, 2024, the Senate voted 51-48 (with an additional “present” vote) along party lines to dismiss the first article of impeachment because it did not meet the constitutional requirement of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A 51-49 vote dismissed the second article along party lines on the same grounds. The dismissal marks the first time the Senate did not hold a trial for articles of impeachment brought by the House. [24] [25] [26]

President Trump was impeached for the first time on Dec.18, 2019. The articles of impeachment include two articles: 1. “abuse of power” for soliciting Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election to Trump’s advantage and 2. “obstruction of Congress” for defying subpoenas issued by Congress. Trump’s Jan. 16-Feb. 5, 2020, first impeachment trial resulted in acquittal by the Senate. Both votes were along party lines, though Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted to convict on Article I (abuse of power) and acquit on Article II (obstruction of Congress).

President Trump was impeached for a second time on Jan. 13, 2021, one week before he left office. Trump was impeached on one article of impeachment: “incitement of insurrection” for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol in which “a mob unlawfully breached the Capitol, injured law enforcement personnel, menaced Members of Congress and the Vice President, interfered with the Joint Session’s solemn constitutional duty to certify election results, and engaged in violent, deadly, destructive, and seditious acts.” Trump’s Feb. 9-13, 2021, second impeachment trial resulted in a second acquittal by the Senate. The vote was again mostly along party lines, though seven Republican Senators voted to convict Trump.

What Is Impeachment?

The U.S. Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to formally charge a federal official who is suspected of committing a crime or abuse of power, using a process called impeachment. If the House approves the articles of impeachment (the charges of wrongdoing) in a majority vote, the official goes to trial in the Senate, which has the sole power to try all impeachments. If an official is convicted by two-thirds of the senators present for the trial, the official will be removed from office. All federal government officials, including the president and vice president, are subject to impeachment. [1] [2]

No U.S. president has had to leave the White House due to impeachment. [3]

President Donald Trump was impeached on Dec. 18, 2019 (acquitted on Feb. 5, 2020) and impeached for a second time on Jan. 13, 2021 (acquitted on Feb. 13, 2021), making Trump the only sitting president to be impeached twice. Presidents Bill Clinton (in 1998) and Andrew Johnson (in 1868) were impeached by the House of Representatives, but were acquitted by the Senate. President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 rather than face impeachment. [3] [4] [5] [13] [14] [15] [17]

When Can a Federal Official Be Impeached?

According to Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution: “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. [7]

Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers No. 65 on Mar. 7, 1788 that the grounds for impeachment “are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust, adding that impeachment was “designed as a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men.” [4] [8] [9]

Charlie Savage, Washington Correspondent for the New York Times, explains, “The term ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ came out of the British common law tradition: it was the sort of offense that Parliament cited in removing crown officials for centuries. Essentially, it means an abuse of power by a high-level public official. This does not necessarily have to be a violation of an ordinary criminal statute.” [4]

What Happens in the U.S. House of Representatives?

According to Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution, impeachment can only be initiated in the U.S. House of Representatives. The term “impeachment” refers to formal charges being filed (like an indictment). The person being charged does not have to leave office after being impeached by the House; instead, they will go to trial in the Senate. [3] [5] [10]

The process in the House can vary. It may begin with the House Judiciary Committee investigating and recommending articles of impeachment, which are formal written allegations of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Committee believes warrant a trial. The House could form a special panel to investigate or skip the committee step altogether. [4] [5] [10]

According to Stephen Vladeck, Law Professor at the University of Texas, “the Constitution actually says nothing about the process the House is supposed to follow when it comes to impeachment inquiries, other than that it eventually has to approve articles of impeachment before sending the matter to the Senate. [11]

Regardless of which path is taken, the result is the articles of impeachment. The full House then votes on the articles of impeachment. [4] [5]

If at least one article gets a majority vote in the House, the federal official has been impeached. [4]

Read the articles of impeachment against Trump, Trump’s second impeachmentClintonNixon, and Johnson.

What Happens in the U.S. Senate?

After the House adopts the articles of impeachment, the process moves to the Senate. The Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases at trial, according to Article I, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7 of the Constitution. [4] [7]

In the Senate, a trial is held with the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, currently Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding as the judge. U.S. Representatives from the House act as prosecutors, called “managers.” The impeached official may choose their own defense counsel. [4] [5] [9] [10]

Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, illustrated by Theodore R. Davis for Harper’s Weekly in Apr. 1868
Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

No set rules for the Senate trial exist. Instead, a resolution is passed in the Senate laying out trial procedure before the trial begins. [4]

If the official is not convicted, they remain impeached but are considered acquitted and not removed from office. [4]

If two-thirds of the Senate, acting as the jury, find the official guilty of the articles of impeachment, the official is removed from office without possibility of appeal. In the case of a U.S. president being convicted, the vice president would become president. The Senate could then disqualify the impeached president from ever holding public office again with a simple majority vote. [3] [4] [5] [10]

Who Has Been Impeached?

The House of Representatives has impeached 21 people since 1797: one senator, one associate justice of the US Supreme Court, 14 federal judges, one Secretary of War, one Homeland Security Secretary, and Presidents Trump, Clinton and Johnson. [3] [12] [23]

Eight of those 21 were removed from office following a Senate trial, eight were acquitted, three resigned before or during the trial, and one had charges dismissed. One, Mayorkas, is still awaiting a Senate trial. [12] [23]

Individual &
House Impeachment Date &
Senate Trial Dates &
Outcome of Senate Trial
1.William Blount
US Senator (TN)
July 7, 1797
Conspiring to assist in Great Britain's attempt to seize Spanish-controlled territories in modern-day Florida and Louisiana
Dec. 17, 1798 - Jan. 14, 1799
Charges dismissed for want of jurisdiction
Blount was expelled from the Senate before trail
2.John Pickering
US District Court Judge, New Hampshire
Mar. 2, 1803
Intoxication on the bench and unlawful handling of property claims
Mar. 3, 1803 - Mar. 12, 1804
Found guilty and removed from office
3.Samuel Chase
US Supreme Court Associate Justice
Mar. 12, 1804
Charges: arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials
Dec. 7, 1804 - Mar. 1, 1804
4.James H. Peck
US District Court Judge, Western District of Tennessee
Apr. 24, 1830
Abuse of the contempt of power
Apr. 26, 1830 - Jan. 31, 1831
5.West H. Humphreys
US District Court Judge, Western District of Tennessee
May 6, 1862
Refusing to hold court and waging war against the US government
June 9-26 1862
Found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from holding future office
6.Andrew Johnson
17th President of the US
Feb. 24, 1868
Violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from office
Feb. 25 - May 26, 1868
7.Mark H. Delahay
US District Court Judge, Kansas
Feb. 28, 1873
Intoxicated on the bench
No trial held
Resigned prior to trial
8.William W. Belknap
US Secretary of War
Mar. 2, 1876
Criminal disregard for his office and accepting payments in exchange for making official appointments
Mar. 3, - Aug. 1, 1876
9.Charles Swayne
US District Court Judge, Northern District of Florida
Dec. 13, 1904
Abuse of contempt power and other misuses of office
Dec. 14, 1904 - Feb. 27, 1905
10.Robert W. Archibald
US Commerce Court Associate Judge
July 11, 1912
Improper business relationships with litigants
July 13, 1912 - Jan. 13, 1913
Found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from holding future office
11.George W. English
US District Court Judge, Eastern District of Illinois
Apr. 26, 1926
Abuse of power
Apr. 23 - Dec. 13, 1926
Resigned on Nov. 4, 1926 and the trial was dismissed on Dec. 13, 1926
12.Harold Louderback
US District Court Judge, Northern District of California
Feb. 24, 1933
Favoritism in the appointment of bankruptcy receivers
May 15-24, 1933
13.Halsted L. Ritter
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Florida
Mar. 2, 1936
Favoritism in the appointment of bankruptcy receivers and practicing law as a sitting judge
Mar. 10 - Apr. 17, 1936
Found guilty and removed from office
14.Harry E. Claiborne
US District Court Judge, Nevada
July 22, 1986
Income tax evasion and remaining on the bench following a criminal conviction
Oct. 7-9, 1986
Found guilty and removed from office
15.Alcee L. Hastings
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Florida
Aug. 3, 1988
Perjury and conspiring to solicit a bribe
Oct. 18-20, 1989
Found guilty and removed from office
16.Walter L. Nixon
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Mississippi
May 10, 1989
Perjury before a federal grand jury
Nov. 1-3, 1989
Found guilty and removed from office
17.William J. Clinton
42nd President of the United States
Dec. 19, 1998
Lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice
Jan. 7 - Feb. 12, 1999
18.Samuel B. Kent
US District Court Judge, Southern District of Texas
June 19, 2009
Sexual assault, obstructing and impeding an official proceeding, and making false and misleading statements
June 24 - July 22, 2009
Resigned before completion of trial
19.G. Thomas Porteous, Jr.
US District Court Judge, Eastern District of Louisiana
Mar. 11, 2010
Accepting bribes and making false statements under penalty of perjury
Dec. 7-8, 2010
Found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from holding future office
20.Donald Trump
45th President of the United States
Dec.18, 2019
Abuse of power and obstruction of Congress
Jan. 16, 2020 - Feb. 5, 2020
21.Donald Trump
45th President of the United States
Jan. 13, 2021
Incitement of insurrection
Feb. 9-13, 2021
22.Alejandro Mayorkas
Homeland Security Secretary
Feb. 13, 2024
Refusal to comply with federal immigration laws
Apr. 17, 2024
Articles dismissed by Senate without trial

Source: US State House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, “List of Individuals Impeached by the House of Representatives,” (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)

Discussion Questions

1. Should the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have a set protocol for impeaching a federal official? What sort of protocols? Why or why not?

2. Should federal officials who have been impeached be allowed to hold public office? Why or why not? What if they were acquitted in the Senate? 

3. In what ways does an impeachment differ from a criminal trial? Explain your answers.

4. What are some examples of crimes or actions for which you think a federal official should be impeached?

5. Do you think the impeachment process is set up in a way that protects the best interests of the American public? Why or why not?

1.U.S. House of Representatives History, Art, & Archives, “Impeachment,” (accessed Nov. 7, 2019)
2.U.S. Senate, “Impeachment,” (accessed Nov. 7, 2019)
3.Pete Williams, “What Is Impeachment and How Does It Work?,”, Sep. 25, 2019
4.Charlie Savage, “How the Impeachment Process Works,”, Sep. 24, 2019
5.Brian Pascus, “Pelosi Launches Impeachment Inquiry into Trump: What Is It and What Happens Next?,”, Sep. 24, 2019
6.Nicholas Fandos, “Nancy Pelosi Announces Formal Impeachment Inquiry of Trump,” nytimes,com, Oct. 4, 2019
7.Legal Information Institute, “U.S. Constitution,” (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)
8.Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist Papers: No. 65,”, Mar. 7, 1788 (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)
9.Nicole Goodkind, “Impeachment Explained: Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and What Happens Next,”, Sep. 25, 2019
10.Andrew O’Reilly, “The Impeachment Inquiry: How Does Removing a President Work?,”, Sep. 24, 2019
11.Brian Naylor, “Who Sets the Rules? When Is It Real? And Other Big Questions on Impeachment,”, Oct. 9, 2019
12.U.S. State House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, “List of Individuals Impeached by the House of Representatives,” (accessed Sep. 25, 2019)
13.Nicholas Fandos and Michael D. Shear, “Trump Impeached for Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress,”, Dec. 19, 2019
14.Elise Viebeck, Rachael Bade, and Seung Min Kim, “House Delivers Historic Impeachment Case against Trump to Senate,”, Jan. 15, 2020
15.Peter Baker, “Impeachment Live Updates: Senate Acquits Trump, Ending Historic Trial,”, Feb. 5, 2020
16.The Hill Staff, “Read: Lawmakers’ Drafted Article of Impeachment against Trump,” Jan. 11, 2021
17.Zachary B. Wolf,” The House Just Voted to Impeach President Trump. Here’s What Happens Next,”, Jan. 13, 2021
18.Mike Lillis and Scott Wong, “House Formally Sends Impeachment to Senate, Putting Trump on Trial for Capitol Riot,”, Jan. 25, 2021
19.Amy Howe, “Roberts Will Not Preside over Impeachment Trial,”, Jan. 25, 2021
20.Mary Clare Jalonick, “Explainer: What’s ahead as Trump Impeachment Trial Begins,”, Feb. 9, 2021
21.Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju and Lauren Fox, “Senators Vote That Impeachment Trial Is Constitutional Following House Managers and Trump Lawyer Debate,”, Feb. 9, 2021
22.Jordain Carney, “Senate Votes 57-43 for Trump Acquittal,” the, Feb. 13, 2021
23.Scott Wong, “Republicans Impeach Alejandro Mayorkas over the Border after Failing to Last Week,”, Feb. 13, 2024
24.Ximena Bustillo, "Senate to Begin Mayorkas Impeachment Trial This Week. Here’s What You Need to Know,", Apr. 9, 2024
25.Kaia Hubbard, "House Republicans Postpone Sending Mayorkas Impeachment Articles to Senate,", Apr. 9, 2024
26.Luke Broadwater, "Senate Dismisses Impeachment Charges against Mayorkas without a Trial,", Apr. 18, 2024