Understanding the Impeachment Process

Siroos (far right) and fellow Kid Reporters Marley Alburez and Amelia Poor discussed the impeachment trial with NY1 news anchor Pat Kiernan in New York City.

Members of the United States Senate recently voted to acquit President Donald Trump on two articles of impeachment.

On February 5, after nearly three weeks of deliberations, the Senate acquitted Trump of abuse of power by a vote of 52 to 48. The Senate also found the President not guilty of obstruction of Congress by a vote of 53 to 47.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican to vote against the President. He said that Trump was guilty of abuse of power according to the guidelines set out in the U. S. Constitution.

“The grave question the Constitution tasks Senators to answer is whether the President committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a ‘high crime and misdemeanor,’” Romney said on the Senate floor. “Yes, he did.”

To help kids better understand the impeachment process, I emailed questions to Daniel Kiel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Memphis School of Law in Tennessee. Here are Kiel’s responses, which have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity:

What is the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” according to the U.S. Constitution? 

There is actually no definition in the Constitution, and impeachments are so rare that no specific definition has developed over time. When the Constitution was written in 1787, many terms were left unclear. “High crimes and misdemeanors” can be interpreted as an extension of the other two items listed for impeachment, “treason” and “bribery.” These are both cases where a public official puts his or her own interests ahead of their responsibilities as a public official.  

Why are there so many arguments in the hearings around presenting witnesses and evidence? 

An impeachment trial is not a traditional trial. But it does have many of the features of a trial. Evidence is presented in favor and in defense of impeachment using formal procedures adopted by the Senate. The Constitution does not specify many details, however, so the Senate can decide what evidence is allowed to be heard and considered.

In this case, President Trump argued that certain people could not testify because of a principle known as “executive privilege.” In law, a privilege exists to protect the confidentiality of conversations between a lawyer and his or her client. This allows a client to be fully honest with the lawyer, without worrying that any information would be used against him or her. 

Sometimes, the operation of a privilege does prevent fully revealing the “truth” of a situation. One example would be if a client tells a lawyer that he or she has committed a crime, but the lawyer still works hard to prevent the client from being found guilty. 

Here, the President argued that his advisers had a similar privilege. In order to get their honest advice, they should be protected from having to testify about that advice in a later trial. The House of Representatives called for some of those advisers to testify, but they refused. Some people in the Senate also wanted officials from the Trump Administration to testify. But since a majority of Senators did not agree, no witnesses were called.  

Should a U.S. President be impeached in an election year? Or should we let the voters decide?

There is no reason in the Constitution why a President should not be impeached in an election year. Indeed, one of the other Presidents to have been impeached, Andrew Johnson, was also impeached in an election year (1868).

With impeachment, the legislative branch (Congress) is asked to determine if the President has done something that merits removal from office. If the President commits any wrongdoing, the Constitution gives the Congress the power to remove him/her, regardless of the election calendar. Elections are another check on the government, where the people have their say every four years.


Photo courtesy of NY1