Q&A: How do you remove a president from power?

As the Trump administration’s possible links with Russia continue to dominate the news, some politicians are suggesting the US president could be impeached.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to remove a US president from power.

What is impeachment?

President Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Impeachment is the process by which the president can be removed from power if it is believed he or she has “engaged in treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.

The exact meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanours” has not been officially defined – it is up to Congress to decide whether the president’s actions are enough for him to be removed.

How can a president be impeached?

President Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton (PA)

Impeachment charges are brought by the House of Representatives. A simple majority of votes within the House is enough to officially impeach the president.

Being impeached does not mean the president is removed from power though.

A president impeached by the House of Representatives then goes on trial in the Senate – two-thirds of senators need to agree for the president to be removed for the head of state to lose their job.

Is there another way to remove a president from power?

James Comey
Former FBI director James Comey (Susan Walsh/AP)

The 25th amendment deals with who should succeed the president when things go wrong (it’s the vice president by the way).

Section 4 of the amendment allows the vice president and a majority of the cabinet to remove the president upon certifying that he or she is unable to perform the duties of office.

The president can then disagree, claiming to be fit enough to perform their duties, in which case, if the vice president and the majority of cabinet still believe them to be incapable, the matter passes to Congress.

Two-thirds of each house in Congress has to agree that the president is incapacitated for him to be removed.

Is that likely?

President Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Susan Walsh/AP)

The section 4 rules have never actually been used, but discussion of the amendment has kicked off after New York Times columnist Ros Douthat suggested using it to remove Donald Trump on the grounds that he is “a child” who does not “sufficiently understand the nature of the office that he holds”.

Douthat contends that Trump has not committed “high crimes or misdemeanours” – he is not clever enough to commit such acts, he claims. Instead, Douthat says Trump’s biggest crime is not understanding the rules of the presidency and the importance of keeping them, which is why using the 25th amendment is the best way to get rid of him.

But the amendment was designed with instances such as James Garfield (he was seriously ill for three months after being shot) and Woodrow Wilson (he suffered a bad stroke and failed to recover) in mind.

American President Woodrow Wilson in 1918.
Woodrow Wilson in 1918 (PA)

The architects of the amendment probably did not think about it being used to kick out a president who was acting like “a child”.

Jonathan Bernstein also argues that as one of the main criticisms against Trump is that he undermines democratic norms, for example by firing James Comey, he should only be removed using a careful application of the rules – ie impeachment.

Which presidents have been removed from power before?

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon (PA)

The 25th amendment has never been used to remove a president from power, but three presidents have faced impeachment proceedings.

Andrew Johnson – After the American civil war, President Johnson clashed with the Republican-controlled Congress on how to reconstruct the South.

He was impeached for breaking the Tenure of Office Act when he tried to replace the US secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without congressional permission. The House of Representatives voted to impeach him in 1868, but the Senate trial acquitted him.

Richard Nixon – The Nixon administration was involved in a number of clandestine and often illegal activities including covert recording and surveillance, breaking and entering, and misuse of funds.

Impeachment proceedings started against Nixon, but before they could be voted on in the House he resigned.

Bill Clinton – President Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998, after he was accused of lying under oath with regards to his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The House of Representatives brought impeachment proceedings against him, but the Senate acquitted him.

Will Trump be removed?

President Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Susan Walsh/AP)

Most calls for Trump to be impeached have centred around possible collusion between his administration and Russia.

Whether Trump gets impeached or not depends on whether there is enough proof of an impeachable offence, but more importantly whether the Republican-controlled Congress will vote to remove one of their own.

No-one knows whether Trump will get impeached or not, and the truth is it is too early to tell – while odds are shortening for an early removal of the president, some commentators are claiming he will never be impeached.

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