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U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question from a member of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Trump demonstrated his growing agitation at the impeachment investigation, alleging without evidence at a news conference Wednesday that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff helped write a whistle-blower’s complaint. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Cornered

Cornered

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question from a member of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Trump demonstrated his growing agitation at the impeachment investigation, alleging without evidence at a news conference Wednesday that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff helped write a whistle-blower’s complaint. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trump faces an impeachment crisis – and is lashing out. Here’s our guide to what happens next

It started with a phone call.

Just days after the final report of the tortuous two-year investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller eventually came out, listing damning evidence of obstruction-of-justice behaviour by Donald Trump but ultimately declining to indict him on charges of collusion, the President apparently decided to make it easy for everyone looking for evidence to charge him.

On a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump pressured Zelensky no fewer than eight times to dig up dirt on his potential rival for the presidency, Joe Biden. When concerns were raised through internal channels by a whistleblower in the State Department, the White House tried to cover it up. When it became public a couple of weeks ago, Trump responded by releasing the transcript of the call, seemingly under the impression that the transcript (which appeared to have been amended, or at least abbreviated, before release) would exonerate him.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer waves the transcript

It didn’t. Despite the doctoring, the transcript contained damning-enough evidence that it finally spurred the cautious Democratic congressional leadership into pulling the trigger on an impeachment inquiry – the first step towards removing a president from office.

How the process works

The process of impeaching a president, as laid out in the US Constitution, comes in two official stages: first, articles of impeachment must be passed in the House of Representatives; second, those accusations are put to trial, with the Senate acting as jury.

The impeachment inquiry, which is the opening of the process that could lead to those articles being formally introduced in the House, is an opportunity for the House committees – controlled, since the 2018 midterm elections, by the Democrats – to start to collate the evidence against Trump into a cohesive case. The Judiciary Committee, which would be responsible for drafting the articles, will lead the charge on this, but other committees, such as Intelligence and Oversight, many of which have been running their own separate investigations into Trump, will also join the fray.

Once the Judiciary Committee drafts the articles, they are reported to the full House of Representatives, who vote on them. If this passes – only a simple majority is required in the House – then the president has been impeached. But the process isn’t over. Impeachment is essentially the levelling of formal accusations against the president, and it bears noting that there is little precedent in this area, as well as few written details about the constitutional rules for the impeachment process, so a lot of this will be made up as it goes along.

According to the Constitution, when the House votes to impeach, the articles are presented to the Senate. If the Senate takes them up – and under the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who showed when he refused to hear from Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland that he is more than willing to ignore his constitutional responsibilities when it suits him – the whole Senate acts as jury in a kind of trial. This trial is presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court; both sides can call and cross-examine witnesses. A two-thirds majority is needed for impeachment to pass in the Senate, which makes it extremely unlikely to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

In fact, it has never happened. Only two presidents in American history have been impeached in the House of Representatives – Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – and both were acquitted in the subsequent Senate trial. Richard Nixon resigned after articles of impeachment had been brought to the House floor but before they could be voted on.

This isn’t to say that there are no Republicans who want to see Trump impeached. Jeff Flake, who was a Republican senator for Arizona before stepping down at the last election, said at a panel in Austin, Texas last week that if the vote were held by secret ballot, instead of publicly, “at least 35” Republicans would support removing Trump.

It’s not a secret ballot, though, and the Republican majority in the Senate has largely steered clear of breaking with Trump, largely from fear of his activist base. A successful impeachment isn’t technically impossible, but it is still extremely unlikely in the current political climate.

But the main thing about impeachment proceedings isn’t the outcome – it’s the spectacle. Nixon wasn’t impeached, but he stood down when the scrutiny that came from the hearings made his position untenable. It’s an opportunity for powerful political theatre.

Tactics and strategy

The Democrats are faced with a difficult choice. Do they focus on the Ukraine call – the single moment that seemed to move public sentiment enough to start the impeachment inquiry – or do they widen the scope of their efforts as far as possible? If they go the latter route, they have an embarrassment of riches from which to build their case.

The constitution is a little vague about exactly what constitutes an impeachable offence, stating that a president can be impeached for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

Putting aside the fact that “high misdemeanors” is somewhat contradictory and poorly defined, the Democrats probably don’t have to look far in order to make bribery work. The Trump presidency contains enough easy examples of implicit quid pro quo kickbacks to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour: foreign powers have learned that they can easily get the President’s ear by spending money at his hotels or resorts.

Treason is trickier. While it may seem as though leaning on foreign powers to investigate political rivals should be against the law, it may largely come down to a campaign finance violation – accepting political help as an in-kind campaign donation.

Ultimately, especially with the 2020 election coming up, the Democrats may be incentivised to string the impeachment process out as long as possible, call as many witnesses as possible, and explore every nook and cranny of Trump’s presidency, life, and business dealings. They already have the Mueller report, which describes numerous incidents of possible criminal behaviour, as a starting-point to build a case, too.

The last thing the Democrats want while going into the 2020 presidential race is for Trump to be able to claim that the impeachment proceedings “cleared” him if – more likely, when – the Senate votes against removing him from office. That means that the important thing is for the proceedings to make the case to the American people, not to the Senate.

Previous impeachments of presidents

Andrew Johnson, who was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President and assumed office after Lincoln’s assassination, was impeached by the House of Representatives in February 1868. The articles levelled against him focused on his dismissal of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, in violation of a law Congress had passed in 1867 specifically designed to prevent Stanton’s removal. The trial in the Senate failed by one vote to meet the two-thirds majority.

Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 when the House Judiciary Committee brought three articles of impeachment to the House floor charging him with contempt of Congress, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power, all relating to the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building and to the subsequent cover-up.

Bill Clinton was impeached by the House on two articles charging him with obstruction of justice and lying under oath. The charges had emerged from a wide-ranging, four-year investigation by a special prosecutor, Ken Starr, appointed by the Republicans to look into a range of possible scandals, including alleged sexual misconduct.

The trial in the Senate failed by a large margin, with several Republican senators voting alongside Democrats against impeaching Clinton.

The Republicans getting involved

Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, former Governor of Texas. Perry, who crashed out of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries after the now-infamous “oops” moment, in which he forgot the third of three US government departments he had pledged to close, is now ironically head of that very department.

Trump dragged him into the Ukraine scandal when he told House Republicans that asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden was at Perry’s urging. Whether this is true or not is unclear.

Mitt Romney, Senator for Utah, former Governor of Massachusetts. The former Republican presidential candidate, who lost to Obama in 2012, has been an occasional critic from the sidelines of the Trump administration.

He joined the fray over the scandal on Saturday, tweeting that the call was clearly “politically motivated” and adding, “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.” As yet, it’s unknown whether those words will translate into a vote for impeachment in the Senate – generally speaking, over the past few years, Romney hasn’t really turned his criticism of Trump into action against Trump. Nevertheless, the President, stung, hit back on Twitter, calling Romney a “pompous ass.”

The numbers

House

435 voting members

235 Democrats / 197 Republicans / 1 Independent / 2 vacant seats

Votes needed to pass articles of impeachment: 218 (simple majority)

Senate

100 voting members

53 Republicans / 45 Democrats / 2 Independents

Votes needed to convict on articles of impeachment: 67 (two-thirds majority)