It can be hard to remember given the speed with which news is made and unmade these days, but we’re currently watching history play out in real-time at the White House. President Donald Trump is just the fourth president in the history of the United States to face serious impeachment proceedings, following in the footsteps of former Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. (None of them were removed from office for impeachment: Nixon stepped down before a vote could take place and Johnson and Clinton were both impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate.) And when it comes to Trump, all bets are off with regard to how the next few months will play out.
Each impeachment inquiry is unique, like a snowflake. With the Trump administration refusing to comply with the House of Representatives’ current investigation, it isn’t going to be easy for impeachment to make its way through Congress. But if it does, the much-anticipated impeachment inquiry would make its way into the hallowed halls of the Senate. You may already know the broad strokes of what that means, but let’s take a closer look at what our future may hold.
Here’s what we do know: Impeachment proceedings have to go through the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the house, impeachment is, well, a mess. The procedure is complex and convoluted and the Constitution doesn’t clear things up or tell members of Congress how to go about the thing. Because of that, we end up leaving on the historical context of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton pretty heavily. Thankfully, it’s a little bit clearer in the Senate than it is in the House.
So let’s take things one step at a time, with a loose guide on how a presidents impeachment plays out in the Senate:
Step 1: Get To Know The Senate’s Role In The Impeachment Inquiry
If the impeachment conversation reaches the Senate, an official has already technically been impeached. Given that the definition of impeachment is a “charge of misconduct,” being impeached means that the House of Representatives has already brought those same charges of misconduct against a given person. In this case? It’s the President, though Senators, judges, and even Secretaries of War have all been impeached in the past.
The “High Court of Impeachment,” according to the Senate’s official website, decides whether or not a president is removed from office; in order to do that, they conduct a trial.
“The constitution says the House impeaches and the Senate renders a decision,” Jody Baumgartner, the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of political science at East Carolina University, told MTV News. “The Senate is simply making the decision [of] as the result of this president having been impeached, should he be removed from office? That's it.”
Step 2: Get Ruled
Senators have to adopt a set of rules governing the process; failure to do so runs the risk that it could just… literally never end. So your elected officials lay some groundwork: How long the trial will run, what evidence is permissible and which witnesses are allowed. During former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle crafted a bipartisan agreement on how to run the trail. According to a Los Angeles Times article from 1999, those rules included allowing depositions from witnesses and making the trial available to the public via broadcasts and videotaped testimony. Primetime, baby!
Step 3: A Detour! Could The Senate Vote To Dismiss The Charges?
This isn’t a required step, but it’s one that could happen: After all, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell did tell CNBC that even though he would have “no choice” but to take up the impeachment proceedings, “how long you are on it is a different matter.”
Basically, McConnell could put something up to vote that the Senate not hear a trial, and, instead, dismiss the charges altogether. Former senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) attempted this during Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, but the then-Republican-controlled Senate voted to 56-to-44 to continue to trial, according to the Washington Post.
This time around, however, there’s a chance such a tactic could succeed, since McConnell would only need a basic majority to vote in favor of dismissal, and he effectively controls the Senate. (Of the 100 Senators, 53 are Republican, 45 are Democrat and two are Independent). If that vote to dismiss passes, the president remains in office despite being technically impeached by the House of Representatives. If it fails, or if the Senate decides not to hold a vote to dismiss the charges, the Senate holds a trial.
Step 4: The Senate Holds A Trial
In any trial, there is a defense and a prosecution. Here, the defense of the president would be his own defense lawyers — it’s unclear if that includes his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who is a big player in the Ukraine inquiry and a noted fan of giant-sized texts. Members of the House Judiciary Committee would serve as prosecutors. It isn’t yet clear who of the 41 members, comprised of 17 Republicans and 24 Democrats, would be players.
Step 5: A Senate Vote
After the trial, everyone in the Senate votes on if they should convict the president. Two-thirds, or 67 of 100 senators, would have to vote in favor of the president to be convicted and removed from office. That means 20 Republican senators would have to join every single one of the Democrats and two Independents. If fewer than two-thirds of the members present vote to convict them, the president will remain in office — which is what happened to former President Bill Clinton. The Senate voted to acquit him on charges of perjury on a 45-55 vote and of obstruction of justice on a 50-50 vote, according to a 1999 CNN article.
No matter how it plays out, this impeachment is likely to affect the President’s chance at reelection in 2020. After all, more than half of U.S. voters want him impeached and removed from office — and that’s according to a Fox News poll.