The impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump is taking up more and more space every day — at the office coffee machine, at the internet watercooler otherwise known as Twitter, and even Lizzo concerts. You probably already know the broad strokes of what that means, but as the topic rises once again in the broader public consciousness, it’s time for a brief refresher on how the impeachment process works, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
There’s a lot of processes that Congress could follow here, though they are under no obligation to do so. The Constitution doesn’t say much about how to impeach a president, so we have to lean on historical precedent to figure out how impeachment proceedings may play out this time around.
Jody Baumgartner, the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of political science at East Carolina University, told MTV News that the entire process of impeachment is simply the “ultimate check on executive power.” He added that “the constitution is intentionally vague about how each House is to conduct its business,” which means there are a lot of ways the next few weeks, months, and (gulp) possibly even years could go.
Here’s what we do know: Impeachment proceedings have to go through the House of Representatives and the Senate. So let’s take things one step at a time, with a loose guide on how a president might be impeached in the House:
Step 1: Get To Know The House’s Role In The Impeachment Inquiry
Impeachment is, in its most basic terms, charging an official with a crime or misdemeanor. The House’s role is simply to bring those charges against an official (in this case, President Trump) as “part of its oversight and investigatory responsibilities,” according to the U.S. Office of the Historian.
The House will charge the official, and it’s the Senate’s job to take that charge to trial. If the house decides to charge the president, that means the president will technically be impeached — but the House doesn’t have the power to actually remove the president from office.
Step 2: Launch Your Battleships
If the members of the House believe the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” which are impeachable offenses, according to the Constitution, they can launch a formal impeachment inquiry.
That’s where things begin to get a bit messy, so buckle in. There are two ways the House can launch the inquiry: One, an individual member of the House can introduce impeachment resolutions like any other bill, or two, the entire House could initiate proceedings by passing a resolution authorizing an inquiry, according to the U.S. Office of the Historian. For both options, a majority of the House has to vote in order to proceed — this isn’t a vote for impeachment, but is simply a vote to authorize an inquiry.
During the impeachment processes for former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the full House voted and passed resolutions to look into impeachment inquiries, but things are already panning out differently during the Trump presidency, given Congress might just…. not do either option. Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker, already sanctioned the inquiry, and there is, of course, much debate about how that might impact the investigation.
There’s so much debate on it, that the president’s administration said in an 8-page letter that his administration won’t participate in the investigation, in part, because there has been no formal vote to begin an impeachment inquiry.
Pelosi called the letter “manifestly wrong” and added that “the White House should be warned that continued efforts to hide the truth of the President's abuse of power from the American people will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction,” in a statement Tuesday night, according to NPR.
Step 3: It’s Time To Investigate
No matter how the House handles step two, there will be an investigation into the president. During Nixon and Clinton’s impeachment processes, the speaker of the House directed the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over impeachments, to hold a hearing on that resolution. That committee is currently leading the investigation here, too, with the help of four other committees: The Oversight Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, the Financial Services Committee, and the Foreign Affairs Committee. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) of the House Judiciary Committee claimed in a court filing, according to the New York Times, that the committee is already investigating impeachment. (Trump’s Justice Department, on the other hand, says that since there has been no full House resolution, the committee is just engaged in a routine oversight proceeding, the Times reported in mid-September.)
But the House could, theoretically, set up a different, special panel to handle the proceedings. Or, they could skip that altogether and just hold a floor vote on impeachment articles without having any committee vet them. Both of those options seem pretty unlikely since Nadler is already investigating.
Here’s how that investigation works: House Representatives on their respective Committees gather evidence, subpoena witnesses, and review information about the president. Once their investigation is complete, the Judiciary Committee will likely decide whether or not to recommend articles of impeachment.
If a simple majority of the House Judiciary Committee agrees that there’s insufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the process is over, there’s no impeachment, and the president remains in office. (That’s unlikely to happen this time around, considering the partisan makeup of the committee: Of the 41 members, just 17 are Republicans and 24 are Democrats.) If they find that the President has committed impeachable offenses, they draft articles of impeachment and send them to the full House for a vote.
Step 4: A House Vote
If the Judiciary Committee determines that the findings are sufficient, the House will hold a floor vote (which is that long process you’ve probably seen on C-SPAN). If fewer than a majority of House members vote to impeach, the president stays in office.
That, too, is unlikely to happen — of the 435 people in Congress, just 197 are Republican, while 235 are Democratic (one is independent and there are currently two vacancies, according to the U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery). And of those Democrats, the Washington Post notes that 227 support an impeachment inquiry, coupled with four Republicans who say they support an investigation into Trump’s phone call with the President of Ukraine, and whatever subsequent coverup concerned at least one whistleblower.
Couple that with this statistic: Around half of respondents to several independent polls support an impeachment inquiry. Plenty of lawmakers have track records that suggest they don’t always listen to their constituents, but public pressure is key in impeachment proceedings. If you feel strongly, you know what to do: Call your lawmaker.
Step 5: It Heads To The Senate
If a majority of the House votes to impeach, the president is technically impeached, though that might not mean they’re removed from office. That decision is then up to the Senate, who holds a trial. Former Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both acquitted at that stage in the process. The only other president at the center of an impeachment inquiry, Richard Nixon, resigned before the House voted.
If the Trump administration doesn’t comply, the House can continue with its investigation, but it will be a lot more difficult. The U.S. ambassador to the E.U. already did not appear for testimony before House lawmakers at the direction of the State Department, according to CBS News.
Of course, that directive could come back to haunt this administration. The first article of impeachment levied against Nixon was about how the president “has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice.”