What Is The Legal Definition Of “Impeachment?”

Even though our country has now impeached three presidents four times, there is still a disconnect between the term “impeachment” and its actual definition. For whatever reason, most of us are still confused. For example, many people remember the impeachment proceedings for former President Bill Clinton, but they don’t actually realize he was impeached. That’s because they believe impeachment means removal, when in fact that’s not the case at all.

The legal definition of the word “impeachment” according to Cornell University is: “The process of charging a public official, such as a U.S. president or a federal judge, with a crime or misconduct, which results in a trial by the senate to determine whether the official should be removed from office.”

Basically, the choice to impeach a president simply means that the United States House of Representatives has decided to bring charges against a president (although other bodies reserve the right to impeach different types of public officials). Senators notably cannot be impeached — they must be removed by other members of Congress, which makes the likelihood of it ever happening very low. Historically, senators have only been removed during the Civil War.

That means former President Donald J. Trump has been impeached twice. He was not convicted of “high crimes and misdemeanors” (another oft-misunderstood phrase) — but the lack of a conviction doesn’t nullify the impeachment. He was and always will be impeached. Because conviction requires two-thirds of the Senate, it isn’t likely to happen this time around either, even though many Republican senators have voiced distaste or open blame for the former president’s conduct. 

Legally, Trump’s lawyers will likely argue that it is unconstitutional to try a president who has already left office. But Trump was still in office when he was impeached, and the Senate is legally required to hold a trial once articles of impeachment are transferred — and this is also not without precedent. The argument is therefore flawed.