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Many people see chaos in the Trump administration and fear for the nation’s future. The president was duly elected, and yet this presidency has already been marked by lawsuits, an FBI investigation, policy confusion and escalating rhetoric with North Korea. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution offers a direct, doable way to respond to such crises: impeachment.
The Founding Fathers, after all, won a revolution against a tyrannical chief executive — “Mad” King George III of England. They were fearful of a similar kind of leader taking charge in the new United States. They embedded in the Constitution an orderly process run by Congress, not the courts, to remove civil officers — the president, the vice president, federal judges, Cabinet members and others — who cause substantial harm to society. The idea, said Edmund Randolph, a leader of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, was to circumvent “irregularly inflicted … tumults and insurrections.”
A resolution to impeach can only be filed by a member of the House of Representatives. If a simple majority of the House votes in favor of at least one article of impeachment, the accused official is impeached and must be brought to trial on the charges before the Senate, which acts as court and jury. If the Senate votes by a two-thirds majority to convict, the official is removed from office (the Senate can, by another vote, make it a permanent ban from public office).
Impeachment is an entirely political process; it isn’t a function of criminal or civil law. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, impeachable offenses are “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men or … from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may . . . be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”