After nearly three years in office, President Donald Trump may be impeached. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi made the announcement that she was launching an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, September 24, to the shock of many, after the latest Trump administration scandal broke.
But what, exactly, does this mean? After all, only two presidents in the history of the United States — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — have ever been impeached and both were acquitted and allowed to finish their terms. (Richard Nixon, for what it’s worth, resigned when the House opened an inquiry so he wouldn’t have to face an impeachment vote.)
We’re facing a long, winding, complicated process that could end in any number of ways. And numerous questions have been raised: why now? Why this scandal? What was it about Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president that broke Pelosi’s reticence to impeach? Does this mean that Trump will definitely be removed from office?
Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry is just the beginning, after all. So let’s break down what Trump’s impeachment process looks like, and where we go from here.
A quick note on the meaning of “impeachment.”
According to the House of Representatives’ history archives, “The power of impeachment is limited to removal from office but also provides for a removed officer to be disqualified from holding future office. Fines and potential jail time for crimes committed while in office are left to civil courts.”
And while Pelosi opened an impeachment inquiry, there’s a bit of technical confusion about what the term actually means. Impeachment is, in the literal sense, a vote by the House of Representatives to decide whether or not to charge an official with “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
But the impeachment process is a different beast altogether, one which includes inquiries by House of Representatives subcommittees and a whole mess of deliberation before a vote ever comes to the House floor, no less goes to the Senate.
What has happened so far?
First, let’s break down what has happened so far with the Trump-Ukraine scandal, which is the scandal that made Pelosi decide to pursue impeachment.
- July 18: Trump orders officials to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine.
- July 25: Trump has a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he asks the Ukrainian leader to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who has business holdings in Ukraine.
- July 31: Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is confirmed by Russia before it is confirmed by the White House.
- August 12: An anonymous whistleblower files an “urgent” complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, “triggering a legally required disclosure to the House and Senate intelligence committees.”
- September 1: Zelensky and Vice President Mike Pence meet. Pence denies discussing Biden, but does say that he told Zelensky monetary aid would only be issued if corruption were taken care of.
- September 5: The Washington Post publishes a credible report that Trump pressured Zelensky to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf.
- September 9: House and Senate Intelligence Committees are notified of the whistleblower complaint, but it is not released.
- September 11: The Trump administration releases the money to Ukraine.
- September 13-18: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff subpoenas recently appointed Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to release the complaint; Maguire says he will not testify, as he is “being instructed not to, that this involved a higher authority, someone above.”
- September 19: Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson — to whom the whistleblower complaint was made — briefs Congress on the complaint in a closed-door session.
- September 23: The Washington Post confirms that Trump ordered officials to withhold aid to Ukraine only days before his call with Zelensky; Trump states that aid may have been withheld due to “corruption.”
- September 24: Trump changes his story and says aid was withheld because he wanted other countries to pay their share; Schiff says the whistleblower wants to testify; Pelosi announces an impeachment inquiry.
- September 25: The White House releases a “rough” transcript of the July 25 call with Zelensky. The document warns that it is “not a verbatim transcript.”
- September 26: A declassified version of the Whistleblower Complaint is released. It contains information alleging a systematic hiding of documents and withholding of incriminating information by the President.
This is a condensed version of events, and it’s important to note that, throughout this whole ordeal — months before Trump made that call to Zelensky — Rudy Giuliani was holding discussions about “corruption” with Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, on behalf of his “client” (Trump).
I’ve read the #WhistleblowerComplaint. It’s absolutely clear, the President broke the law. Then his staff tried to cover it up.
The President is running the White House like the mafia. Impeach.
— Congressman Tim Ryan (@RepTimRyan) September 26, 2019
The President has betrayed his oath of office and is implicated in an all-out cover-up in the #WhistleblowerComplaint.
Abuse of power, intimidating a foreign nation, even hiding the transcript. It’s all there.
No way around it. We must impeach NOW. https://t.co/uBwgK7W2U1
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) September 26, 2019
There is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning. We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower.
— Rep. Will Hurd (@HurdOnTheHill) September 26, 2019
What is an impeachment inquiry? Is it the same thing as being impeached?
An impeachment inquiry is the first step in the impeachment process; it does not, however, mean that the president (in this case, Trump) has been impeached — or, charged with high crimes — but rather that the House of Representatives is investigating whether or not there are grounds for impeachment.
Article II, section four of the Constitution gives Congress the power to remove highly placed officials from office: “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 Misdemeanors.” But what the Constitution doesn’t do is outline how impeachment works. That has been determined through trial and error over the years and led to a rather rigorous, exhaustive process.
Here’s what that looks like:
- The House Majority Leader officially opens an impeachment inquiry. This is where we’re at right now, and what this means is that Pelosi is giving the go-ahead to start investigating whether or not Trump did, indeed, meet the threshold for having committed an impeachable offense.
- Six House committees will investigate Trump’s offenses.
- If the findings are insufficient, Trump will not face impeachment.
- If the findings are sufficient, the House will vote “on one or more articles of impeachment.”
- If the House votes to impeach (and it’s important to keep in mind that Democrats control the House), the inquiry will go to the Senate.
- The Senate (which is controlled by Republicans) will have to decide whether or not to hold a trial. A simple majority needs to vote to pursue the indictment.
- If the Senate votes to hold a trial, they will determine whether or not the article(s) of impeachment are sufficient to remove Trump from office.
- The Senate will vote: if fewer than two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, Trump will stay in office. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, Trump will be removed from office.
What’s going to happen in the coming days and weeks?
The Trump administration released a transcript of the call, which confirms that he sought help from a foreign country in the upcoming election. Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” and look into former Vice President and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. (Hunter Biden became a board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company owned by a Russian oligarch who was being investigated for corruption, in 2014.)
According to the transcript, Trump told Zelensky:
“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it […] It sounds horrible to me.”
He also repeatedly inferred that Attorney General William Barr would be involved in the investigation.
What this means is that the administration has essentially confirmed that Trump asked Zelensky to interfere in our upcoming election. That means that the six House committees — Judiciary; Intelligence; Foreign Affairs; Oversight; Ways and Means; and Financial Services — must determine whether or not what Trump did constitutes an impeachable offense. In other words: we’re still very early in the process.
Does this mean Trump is gone?
Unsatisfying as this answer may be to some: we don’t know yet. It’s still very early in the process.
According to the Washington Post, “an abuse of power could fit the bill” for impeachment, and Reuters states that “historically, [an impeachable offense] can encompass corruption and other abuses of the public’s trust. A president does not need to have violated a specific criminal law to have committed an impeachable offense.”
But there are a few problems with this: first, the Justice Department is pushing back on the notion that Trump’s attempt to seek foreign assistance in the upcoming election constitutes an impeachable offense. Most legal scholars, however, disagree.
As University of North Carolina Law professor Michael Gerhardt told the LA Times, “Impeachable misconduct entails a president’s serious abuse of power and a serious abuse of public trust…President Trump’s call did both of those things. It was an abuse of power because he used his position to benefit himself and not the country. It was a breach of trust because Americans trust their president not to engage in self-dealing, either through steering businesses to line their own pockets or through conspiring with or coordinating with foreign powers to intervene in American elections.”
Finally, and more importantly, it’s not likely that the Republican-controlled Senate will pursue an indictment, much less convict, even if the House votes to indict. It would take an extraordinary turn of events for this to happen in our modern partisan political climate. But, of course, we’ll all have to wait and see what happens in the coming days and weeks.