A Kid-friendly Introduction to Impeachment

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

impeachment
We mostly hear about presidential impeachment, but presidents, vice presidents and anyone appointed to a federal office can be impeached, except people in the military. Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This explainer on impeachment is intended for our elementary and middle-school readers. If you would like to read more on this topic, dive into our longer article How Impeachment Works.

The president of the United States has a hard job. He or she is the leader of the U.S. government and the head of the military. Sometimes, in the middle of their time in the White House, lots of people start to notice the president is not doing a good job, or did something illegal. This is when Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate, which make the laws of the United States together — decides whether a president has failed at their job. This process is called impeachment.

One thing we often get wrong about impeachment is that it is the same thing as firing the president. Impeachment is actually how a president gets accused of doing something wrong, and it means they might get fired later. Three American presidents have been impeached, but none of them has had to leave his job because of it.

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Impeachment Is Not Just for Presidents

We hear a lot about presidential impeachment, but presidents, vice presidents and anyone who has a job in the federal government (except military officers) can be impeached. Congress has started the impeachment process about 60 times in American history, but only eight of these have resulted in the person being fired. All of these have been judges.

Presidential impeachment is rare, but it is big news when it happens. Only three presidents in history have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump, who was impeached twice during the four years he was president — once in 2019 and again in 2021. Richard Nixon resigned from office before the House of Representatives was able to impeach him in 1974.

Everything we know about how to impeach a president comes from a small section of the Constitution of the United States, which is the document that outlines the highest laws of the land and tells us how the government should work. According to the Constitution, you might be impeached if you commit any of these crimes: “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The men who wrote the Constitution didn't tell us what any of these things mean, but we know treason is the act of trying to overthrow the government, and bribery is trading money or gifts for a favor. The Constitution doesn't tell us what "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" is, but we understand they are very bad crimes.

The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to impeach. The Senate has the job of holding the trial to decide whether the president will be found guilty or innocent of the crimes named by the House of Representatives.

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A lot of people thought President Nixon should lose his job because he did things that were illegal.
Bettmann/Getty Images

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How Does an Impeachment Begin?

The House of Representatives starts the impeachment process by putting together evidence that the president has done something wrong and giving that evidence to a special group, called a committee, to review. If this committee finds enough evidence, it creates a list of things the president could be guilty of — these are called the Articles of Impeachment. The House votes on these articles, and if more than half of the members vote for one or more of the charges in the Articles of Impeachment, the president is officially impeached.

Next comes the Senate impeachment trial. A few members of the House of Representatives called "Managers" act as the prosecution — they accuse the president of wrongdoing in the trial. The impeached president and their lawyers defend the president. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court acts as the judge in the trial. All the members of the Senate act as the jury, hearing the evidence and deciding what to do about it. If two-thirds of the Senate finds the president guilty, the president is fired from their job, and the vice president takes over the office of president.

Depending on the specific criminal accusations they faced, if the president is found guilty, it might disqualify them from holding office again.

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