How Do You Even Impeach A President?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially filed a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Tuesday (September 24), but that's just the first step in a long road to potentially removing the president from office.
The potential for impeachment followed Donald Trump like a ghost since almost immediately after he was officially sworn in as President on January 20, 2017. But after a whistle-blower filed a complaint about a potential act of treason at the President’s hands, those whispers and rumors turned into booming calls for impeachment from well over 170 Representatives and, after a closed-door meeting between Democratic party leaders, real action.
The complaint hails back to a July 25 phone call, in which Trump allegedly asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to smear former Vice President Joe Biden in an apparent attempt to beat his rival and win re-election. We don’t know a lot about the call, but it looks like we will soon: that whistleblower wants to testify, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted.
And in an incredible move, Trump just… confirmed the call. He told reporters and Twitter at large that he did, indeed, talk to Zelensky about Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine. But he also claimed that he didn’t pressure Zelensky into investigating the Bidens. (There’s currently no evidence that either Joe or Hunter Biden did anything illegal in their Ukraine dealings, but Trump is accusing him of using his position as a former Vice President to help a Ukranian energy company that was paying Hunter Biden.)
It’s unclear if the leaders came to any sort of agreement, but Trump did ask his team to freeze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine just days before his conversation with Zelensky, according to the New York Times. Since Biden is currently leading the presidential primary race for the Democratic nomination, he’s one of Trump’s biggest political rivals and an understandable threat to a man who basically views any opposition as a potential challenge to his bluster and bravado. If Trump indeed asked Zelensky to dig up dirt on his opponent, and then seemingly attempted to withhold American foreign aid in order to threaten the Ukranian President, that would be an impeachable offense. (According to the Constitution, an impeachable offense includes “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”)
While this is the first time a formal impeachment inquiry has been filed against the President, it isn’t the first time the idea has been floated during Trump’s presidency: The first took over nearly two years of Trump’s presidency when Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller’s report didn’t exonerate the President of any wrongdoing, but it wasn’t quite as explosive as many politicians and pundits had anticipated. Mueller left his findings in Congress’s hands to make the next move, saying “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” but that 400-page report did not result in any real action by Congress to remove the president from his post. Sure, some Congresspeople called for removing him from office— but at the time Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house, was adamant that she’s just “not for impeachment.”
This could be different though: The phone call to the Ukraine sheds light on the president’s dealings with Zelensky in what could be considered direct election interference. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, impeaching Trump over the Mueller investigation would have been punishing him for past offenses, while impeaching him over the Ukraine call would be stopping him from “what sure looks like an ongoing attempt to hijack American foreign policy in service of the president’s reelection.”
So Democratic leaders are calling for impeachment. They’re demanding that the Trump administration turns over all documents related to the call, including a transcript Trump promises to hand over. They say that pressuring a foreign government for dirt on a political rival is an impeachable offense — whether or not he withheld American aid to sway Zelensky. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will meet with leaders of the six House committees investigating Trump on Tuesday (September 24) to discuss impeachment.
This begs the question: How do you even impeach a president?
In order to impeach President Trump, or any president for that matter, a simple majority of the House of Representatives would have to vote in favor of impeachment. This could be pretty likely in the current House in which Democrats hold 235 of the 435 seats, creating a majority on their own. That would trigger an impeachment inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee, where Democrats also outnumber Republicans 24 to 17. Then, the committee investigates.
If they find that the President has committed impeachable offenses, they draw up a formal written charge, known as an article of impeachment, and send that to the full House to vote once more. If the House again casts a majority vote, the proceedings would head to the Senate, where things get even more difficult to achieve impeachment. Republican Senators outnumber their Democratic colleagues 53 to 45 (there are two independent Senators), and two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote in favor of convicting the president — something unlikely to happen under Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s watch.
And that intentionally high bar of conviction is what is likely stopping Democrats from going forward with the impeachment process. If they fail, it could hurt their chances of winning the 2020 election for a variety of reasons: voters might lose faith, it could turn Trump into a victim, and it could further divide the country. But that hasn’t stopped some Democrats, who voted in favor of impeachment proceedings on July 24, saying Trump sowed “seeds of discord” among Americans when he sent a series of racist tweets about four congresswomen of color. That resolution was tabled.
Impeachment proceedings also need to be initiated for congresspeople, cabinet members, and federal judges (hi, Brett Kavanaugh). The House has initiated some sort of impeachment proceeding more than 60 times throughout U.S. history, according to the U.S. Office of the Historian, including voting on impeachment for 15 federal judges, one cabinet secretary and Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Despite popular belief, no presidents have actually technically been removed from office by impeachment. Johnson and Clinton narrowly escaped the 2/3rds vote in the Senate, and Nixon resigned before he could officially be kicked out of office.
This is a developing story. MTV News will update it as we know more.