Politics and the American Constitution:
Article one (1) of the constitution of the United States of America gives the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment and the Senate the sole power to try impeachments of officers of the U.S. federal government and the President of the United States. Impeachment is like an interdict, but a political process, not criminal one.
The Constitution sets specific grounds for impeachment. They are “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanours.” To be impeached and removed from office, the House and Senate must find that the President committed one of these acts.
The Constitution defines treason in Article 3, Section 3, and Clause 1:
Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court. The Constitution does not define bribery. It is a crime that has long existed in English and American common law. It takes place when a person gives official money or gifts to influence the official’s behaviour in office. For example, if defendant Smith pays federal Judge Jones $10,000 to find Smith not guilty, the crime of bribery has occurred.
The House of Representatives impeaches (leads an enquiry into the conduct of the President), calls and subpoenas witnesses. Once the House of Representatives is satisfied that is has a case, it subjects the process to a vote for a formal impeachment, post its initial enquiry. This is a simple majority vote. The Impeachment process is moved over to the Senate where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the proceedings. In this instance, the Senate has to have what is called a “super majority” (a vote by more than two/thirds of the members) for the impeachment process to be successful. Should the President be found guilty of the charges against him, he faces the prospects of being criminally charged once he vacates office.
The Origins of Impeachment:
To better understand the meaning of the phrase, it’s important to examine how the framers of the Constitution came to adopt it. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers wanted to create a stronger central government than what existed under the Articles of Confederation. Adopted following the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation provided for a loose organization of the states. The framers wanted a stronger federal government, but not one too strong. To achieve the right balance, the framers divided the powers of the new government into three branches—the executive, legislative, and judicial. This is known as the separation of powers.
They also gave each branch ways to check the power of the other branches. For example, although Congress (the legislative branch) makes laws, the president (the executive) can veto proposed laws. This complex system is known as checks and balances.
Impeachment of judges and executive officials by Congress was one of the checks proposed at the Constitutional Convention. The impeachment of judges drew widespread support, because federal judges would hold lifetime appointments and needed some check on their power. But some framers opposed impeachment of executive officials, arguing that the president’s power could be checked every four years by elections. James Madison of Virginia successfully argued that an election every four years did not provide enough of a check on a president who was incapacitated or abusing the power of the office. He contended that “loss of capacity, or corruption . . . might be fatal to the republic” if the president could not be removed until the next election.
With the convention agreed on the necessity of impeachment, it next had to agree on the grounds. One committee proposed the grounds be “treason, bribery, and corruption.” Another committee was selected to deal with matters not yet decided. This committee deleted corruption and left “treason or bribery” as the grounds. But the committee’s recommendation did not satisfy everyone. George Mason of Virginia proposed adding “maladministration.” He thought that treason and bribery did not cover all the harm that a president might do. He pointed to the English case of Warren Hastings, whose impeachment trial was then being heard in London. Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal in India, was accused of corruption and treating the Indian people brutally.
Madison objected to “maladministration.” He thought this term was so vague that it would threaten the separation of powers. Congress could remove any president it disagreed with on grounds of “maladministration.” This would give Congress complete power over the executive. Mason abandoned “maladministration” and proposed “high crimes and misdemeanours against the state.” The convention adopted Mason’s proposal, but dropped “against the state.” The final version, which appears in the Constitution, stated: “The president, vice-president, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”
The convention adopted “high crimes and misdemeanours” with little discussion. Most of the framers knew the phrase well. Since 1386, the English parliament had used “high crimes and misdemeanours” as one of the grounds to impeach officials of the crown. Officials accused of “high crimes and misdemeanours” were accused of offenses as varied as misappropriating government funds, appointing unfit subordinates, not prosecuting cases, not spending money allocated by Parliament, promoting themselves ahead of more deserving candidates, threatening a grand jury, disobeying an order from Parliament, arresting a man to keep him from running for Parliament, losing a ship by neglecting to moor it, helping “suppress petitions to the King to call a Parliament,” granting warrants without cause, and bribery. Some of these charges were crimes. Others were not. The one common denominator
In all these accusations was that the official had somehow abused the power of his office and was unfit to serve, and in saying so, we have to accept that Donald Trump is perhaps the most impeachable President in American history.