American politics met with a sudden twist on Tuesday, September 24, when the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, announced the launch of a formal impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump over the ongoing Biden-Ukraine crisis. Trump has been accused of putting pressure on the Ukrainian leadership to investigate the family of Joe Biden, the former vice-president and 2020 presidential candidate.
Controversies and calls for Trump’s impeachment are not new when it comes to Trump's tenure in office. But there has been a lack of consensus as moderates have not held out much hope of the process being a success in the Senate, which is controlled by the GOP. Pelosi herself has earlier shared the moderates’ view. But now, over two-thirds of the Democrats in the House support Trump's impeachment. There was something akin to an impeachment inquiry process in the House Judiciary Committee earlier as well, but the Democrats could not really steer it the way they would have liked.
However, with a formal announcement to launch the impeachment inquiry, the Democrats are sending a clear message that they want to make the most of it ahead of the next elections. It will now depend on the House Democrats to decide how to handle the process. There is a big possibility of the Democrats hitting a wall in the Senate where Trump’s own Republican Party is more powerful, but this is only if the process heads there after getting the nod in the House. It would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove the president, which is a tall ask.
Nevertheless, initiating an impeachment in itself is a big event and in the 230-year history of the country’s presidency only three presidents have been subjected to it though none were removed (impeachment is more about being charged with misconduct than removal from office). While Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1999) were tried but not found guilty by two-thirds majority, Richard Nixon (1973-4) quit before being pushed out. So where does the impeachment inquiry against Trump, which he has attacked as “Witch Hunt garbage”, go from here?
Will there be more investigations?
Pelosi has asked six committees to investigate Trump and arrive at a final decision of whether to impeach him. The six committees are: House Judiciary, Oversight, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Financial Services and Foreign Affairs. While most of these committees have conducted investigations that give some idea of what their areas of focus against Trump will be, the Judiciary committee will launch an explicit probe on impeachment. All these committees are now likely to issue subpoenas leading to legal battles.
Will the Supreme Court get involved?
Trump’s administration so far has withstood subpoenas by claiming executive privileges and there is little possibility of that changing over the coming days and weeks. Federal judges are already handling litigation over subpoenas for the president’s controversial tax and other financial records. The courts have never settled the extent of executive privilege and it is to be seen whether the impeachment inquiry makes the Congress powerful enough to overcome it.
Can we expect more hearings?
The Democrats need to pick up momentum in their anti-Trump mission and frequent and intense hearings are what is required to make a deep impact on people’s minds. They have not succeeded in capitalizing on the Robert Mueller case and will need to make it really watertight to make a hard impact in the public space. A similar strategy paid off during the Watergate scandal that nixed Nixon.
Will there be formal articles of impeachment?
If the Democrats can mobilize public opinion against Trump, they can draw up formal articles or a chargesheet of impeachment. The articles or the chargesheet for impeachment will focus on the accusations against Trump. They set out what Trump is formally accused of. They have no set format -- it can be as long or as short as Congress decides. The offenses have to be “high crimes and misdemeanors” but while such terms (along with “abuse of power”) have already been used against Trump, the investigations can help the Democrats find charges against the president in other areas, including obstruction of justice, tax offenses or breach of emoluments clause. Of all the committees investigating, it will be the House Judiciary Committee to club the findings of all six into one set of Articles of Impeachment. The judiciary committee votes on the articles once drawn up and they are sent to the House for a full floor-vote.
What happens if the House votes yes on the articles of impeachment
Even though the Constitution of the US requires that the House needs a simple majority to proceed, it has to conduct a vote on each article. If the House passes even one of the articles, the Senate has to conduct an impeachment trial. In the three precedents, while Nixon quit before this vote took place, all 11 articles against Johnson and two out of three against Clinton were passed.
What happens in the Senate?
The Senate has to hold a trial if the House votes for the president’s impeachment. The Supreme Court’s chief justice presides over it while senators set up procedures. The hearing doesn’t take place in front of a full house of the Senate but only before ‘evidentiary committees’. The president can defend himself in this phase or use attorneys to cross-examine the witnesses present. The committee(s) then reports to the full Senate. The Senate can then debate openly or secretly on the president and holds a single open-floor vote.
What is the final step to impeachment?
The Senate has to pass the impeachment initiative by two-thirds majority. Voting for impeachment even on one article is enough to remove the incumbent. There is no appeal. While Johnson was saved by one vote after only 35 senators voted against him against the required figure of 36, Clinton had 55 votes going against him while impeachment required 66.