Whether you’re for or against impeaching President Donald Trump, you’re probably curious how it would work. What happens if he’s convicted? When does he have to leave the White House? How does Vice President Mike Pence take over?
The short answer to these questions and others is we don’t know, because there’s no precedent for what happens when an American commander-in-chief is removed from office. This is about what we do know.
In order for a president to be forced out of office, he has to be impeached and convicted for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” according to the Constitution. The House first has to introduce a resolution or authorize an inquiry into impeachment. If passed, the president is impeached and the matter goes to the Senate, which holds a trial according to rules it makes up mostly on the spot, The New York Times reported.
The trial is overseen by managers from the House and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Senate functions as the jury. If two-thirds of the Senate vote to convict the president, he is removed from office.
This has never happened before.
Though eight federal judges have been convicted and removed from office, only two presidents have been impeached, and neither Andrew Johnson nor Bill Clinton were forced out of the White House.
We could look to Richard Nixon’s resignation to see how the timeline of a Trump removal might go, though it’s important to note that the former left voluntarily in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which occurred when he attempted to cover up a break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Nixon told his successor, Gerald Ford, of his plan to step down at 11 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1974, the Times reported. At 2:20 p.m., the press was alerted that Nixon would be speaking later that night, and at 7:30 p.m. Nixon met with several leaders of Congress to let them know about his decision.
At 9:01 p.m., Nixon went live on TV and radio and said he was resigning effective at noon the next day. He did so at 11:35 a.m. the next day, and Ford was formally sworn in at 12:03 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1974. Nixon boarded a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, got on Air Force One and flew home to San Clemente, California.
Between Nixon telling the public about his resignation and him actually leaving the White House, fewer than 15 hours elapsed. The time between his official resignation and Ford’s swearing-in was about 30 minutes, so in a more modern case where a successor—say, Pence—was prepared to step up, we could expect a relatively quick turnaround.
When dealing with Trump, though, all bets are off.
“There are many opportunities for further constitutional crises during the Trump years, and a Trump refusal to go along with prospective impeachment proceedings is certainly easy to imagine. In which case: who controls the military?” The Guardian wrote in a piece last month. “Could he refuse to step down if he’s found guilty? See above.”