The White House has been engulfed in controversy since President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week.
Then, on Tuesday, The New York Times then published an explosive report that Trump asked Comey in February to drop the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had resigned the day before.
Trump asked Comey to “let this go” and said Flynn was “a good guy,” The Times reported.
The Times’ report has prompted the strongest calls yet for Trump to be held accountable for his actions, with several analysts and officials pondering the possibility of impeachment.
What does it mean to be impeached?
An impeachment is essentially a formal indictment of a government official. Being impeached does not remove an official from office — rather, it means formal charges are being brought against them.
Two US presidents have been impeached: Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson.
Clinton was impeached in December 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice — he was accused of lying under oath about his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He eventually was acquitted.
Johnson was impeached in 1868 on the primary charge of violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton and trying to replace him with Lorenzo Thomas. Johnson was also acquitted.
President Richard Nixon resigned before impeachment proceedings could begin.
What charges can the president be impeached on?
At the federal level, the president, vice president, and “all civil officers of the United States” can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” according to Article II of the US Constitution.
While all felonies are impeachable, the Supreme Court has never formally ruled on what constitutes an impeachable offense.
“After Watergate, many people said that an impeachable offense is whatever the House and Senate think it is,” Robert Deitz, a former top counsel for the National Security Agency and CIA, told Business Insider. “So I could imagine people saying: ‘Look, I don’t give a damn whether what [the president] did is felonious or not. But the comment or conduct itself has brought disgrace upon the White House, and therefore we think [the president] should be impeached for that.'”
Keith Whittington, an expert on presidential impeachment and a professor of politics at Princeton University, said: “It may be that he’s acting completely within his legal authority and yet still has abused his office in ways that might rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
“But that would have to be something that would need to be explored through congressional hearings,” he said.
How does the impeachment process work?
In the case of a presidential impeachment, the onus is on Congress to bring a charge.
The House of Representatives drafts an article of impeachment, while the Senate holds the trial.
Any representative can initiate the presidential impeachment process.
The House Judiciary Committee typically reviews resolutions calling for the impeachment of a person, while the Rules Committee presides over resolutions calling for investigations into whether certain conduct is impeachable. It sends that resolution to the Judiciary Committee if it feels the conduct is objectionable.
The Judiciary Committee ultimately decides whether there are grounds for impeachment. If a majority of its members agree, the committee drafts a formal article of impeachment, which lays out a charge being brought against an official. That article is then brought and debated before the full House.
The House can consider each article individually or look at the resolution as a whole. If a simple majority votes to impeach based on any article or the full resolution, the impeachment goes to the Senate.
The Senate holds the trial for the charges. Typically, the vice president oversees Senate trials, but in a presidential impeachment, the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides.
The trial unfolds in the same way a criminal trial would in a courtroom. Representatives act as the prosecutors, while the official is defended by an attorney or attorneys of their choosing.
The Senate then deliberates in private, the way a jury does. For an official to be removed from office, two-thirds of senators must vote to convict them.
If that official is convicted, they are immediately removed from office and may be prohibited from holding office in the future. A conviction also opens the door for a possible a criminal prosecution.