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Impeachment: How Does It Work and What Has Happened So Far

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution states that:

The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.

Article I, Section 3, Clauses 6 and 7 states that:

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present.

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States; but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

Article II, Section 4 provides:

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.[2]

So what does all of that mean?

Basically, the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to impeach the president. Impeachment simply means officially charging a government official. Impeachment in the House does not by itself do anything. The president is still in office and can also still be re-elected if only the House impeaches him. We’ll get to how he can be removed from Office later.

The house can vote to impeach the president based on claims of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The high crimes and misdemeanors part is usually where things get tricky. The founding fathers never bothered to explain what that means in detail, so we basically have to guess at it. It is generally considered to be acts of corruption and maladministration, but the definition and criteria for high crimes and misdemeanors can vary a lot. 

It’s important to note that impeachment is not only applied to presidents. Any high official can be impeached. This includes people like Supreme Court justices for example.

How does the President get charged?

In order to be charged with any of these crimes, the House has to write what are called “articles of impeachment,” which basically lay out what the official, or the president, in this case, is being accused of. The house of representatives only requires a majority vote in order to pass articles of impeachment. This means any amount over 50% equals impeachment. Currently, the house is controlled by the democrats and they were able to pass the articles of impeachment with a slim majority. 

In order for the President to actually be removed from office, he must be convicted by the Senate. This means that the house speaker, currently nancy Pelosi, has to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, where there will be a trial. If there is a ⅔ majority in favor of the articles of impeachment, the President will be convicted and removed from office. If not, he will still technically be impeached, but he can go on being president. 

Historically, only Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton have been impeached before Donald Trump, and no president has ever been convicted. Nixon would have been impeached and likely convicted if he had not stepped down from the presidency before the house could vote to impeach him. 

So why was Donald Trump impeached? What is he being accused of? 

Basically, President Trump is accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival for the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter. 

Hunter worked for a Ukrainian company, Burisma,  when Joe Biden was US vice-president. According to the New York Times (click here to read their full article), at the time that Hunter was appointed to the board of Burisma, Joe was overseeing American foreign policy towards Ukraine and Hunter had just been dismissed from the Navy Reserve for drug use. He did not have any experience related to Ukraine or oil, which is what the company dealt with. When he joined the board in 2014, the company was already involved in a corruption scandal and was being investigated. Hunter was getting paid up to 50,000 a month in this position which definitely raised a lot of eyebrows, but technically, it was not illegal for him to take the position. It was no more inappropriate than Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, serving as senior advisor to the president, for example. Some may not approve, but it has not been declared to be illegal in an official capacity. 

During this time, Joe Biden pushed for the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, to be dismissed in Ukraine. He threatened to withhold $1 million in aid and bragged about it on television, a video that has circulated around many media outlets. Many conservative media outlets criticized him for this and asserted that this had something to do with protecting his son. The United States has an anti-corruption policy when it comes to Ukraine and is and has been aiming to help them clean up their government. Joe Biden was not the only one pushing for Shokin to be removed, he was just perhaps the most publicly outspoken. Additionally, according to the Kyiv Post (click here to read the full article), Shokin was not part of investigating Burisma, the company that Hunter Biden worked for. He was ousted for being too lenient, not for investigating Burisma, or any other company, too stringently. 

Okay, so that was a lot. 

Basically, some people believe that what the Bidens did in Ukraine was corrupt and illegal. So far, there hasn’t been any evidence of that. Trump wanted Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate further on Trump’s behalf because he believes there was wrongdoing. The problem with this is not the investigation perse, it’s a sitting president potentially using his official capacity and power as president to get something for personal, political gain. 

Does that make sense? I hope so. 

Before we dive into the timeline of everything that has happened, I’m going to go through some of the arguments being made. Republicans have argued that there was no quid pro quo. Quid pro quo basically means tit for tat, you do this for me and I’ll do this in return. They have also argued that it doesn’t count because it was never executed – he never actually got what he asked for. So even if he had intent, it wasn’t executed. This can be a tricky argument because it essentially lays out a precedent that it’s okay to try something illegal or potentially illegal, and it’s only illegal if it actually pans out. There has also been an argument made that his actions don’t meet the standard set out in the constitution by the founding fathers. While something like quid pro quo can be proved to have or have not happened, the intent of the founding fathers is definitely harder to prove one way or another. We’ll see later how the House attempted to do that. 

So, let’s go through the timeline of what happened.

On July 25, 2019, President Trump spoke with President Zelensky over the phone. Rough transcripts were released by the White House. In this call, Trump tells Zelensky that he will have Rudy Giuliani call him. This is a little unusual.

Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s personal lawyer. It’s very normal for a president to have a personal lawyer who he consults outside of his officially appointed lawyer for government affairs. But, questions have been raised about why Trump’s personal lawyer would be involved in a non-personal, government affair. 

The initial debate between Republicans and Democrats was all about whether there was a quid pro quo, basically meaning did Trump essentially say, do this for me and I’ll do this for you. 

This phone call is the big moment that got everyone’s attention and started the whole impeachment debacle. However, the wheels had already been set in motion before it occurred. 

Earlier in July, before this phone call, $400 million dollars in aid to Ukraine had been frozen. This freezing of aid has been central to the arguments because it at least gives the impression that a quid pro quo was being attempted. Biden investigation for aid money.  

On July 10th, in a meeting at the White House with Ukrainian officials, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, says he has an agreement with the acting White House chief of staff that Ukraine’s president would get a meeting with Trump if Ukraine agreed to investigate. According to later testimony by Fiona Hill, then-national security adviser John Bolton “stiffened” and ended the meeting. He later told her to report it to the National Security Council’s lawyer.

On August 12, 2019, an anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint to the Senate and House intelligence committees. The complaint accused the President of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election.”

The complaint was originally withheld from Congress under the orders of a newly-appointed acting director of national intelligence. Democrat House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff threatened to sue the administration when he found out the complaint had been withheld, all adding to the drama. 

On September 24th, four days after the first story about this phone call broke, Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House, announced the beginning of an impeachment inquiry into the actions of the President. 

Throughout October, closed-door depositions were held before Nancy Pelosi announced on October 28th that the House would vote to formalize and officially authorize impeachment proceedings, which triggered the release of deposition transcripts and the scheduling of public hearings.

On November 13th, public hearings began. Here are the main takeaways:

Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine revealed that one of his staffers, later identified as David Holmes, overheard a phone conversation between Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and President Trump in which Trump asked Sondland about the Biden investigation while Sondland was in Ukraine. Gordon Sondland has no previous experience and donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s campaign

David Holmes later testified that Trump was speaking so loudly during this phone call that Sondland pulled the phone away from his ear and Holmes could hear the whole conversation without the phone using speakerphone. He heard Trump ask “So, he’s gonna do the investigation?'” and Ambassador Sondland reply that “he’s gonna do it,” and that Zelenskiy will do “anything you ask him to.”

This phone call took place in a public restaurant in Kyiv, which some have called a careless breach of security. Sondland is said to have told Holmes that Trump cares more about the investigation than he does about Ukraine after hanging up the phone with President Trump. 

Trump has accused Holmes of making up this phone call but Gordon Sondland confirmed that it took place in his testimony.

Some other testimony of note came from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman who testified that some keywords and phrases were omitted from the released transcript of the July 25th phone call. 

As mentioned earlier, Fiona Hill, an official in the National Security Council, gave testimony as well. 

Gordon Sondland eventually revised his original testimony, which said there was no quid pro quo, to acknowledge that there had, in fact, been a quid pro quo and said “Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States,” directly pointing a finger at the President. 

For transcripts of all of the testimonies, browse NPR’s compilation of transcripts by clicking here.

On December 4th, four legal experts gave testimony and 3 out of 4 concluded that Trump’s actions easily met the threshold set by the founding fathers for Impeachment. 

Much of the testimony has been criticized by Republicans who were not pleased with all of the choices of witnesses, especially those of officials who had no direct contact with the President. 

As the testimonies went on, specifically with the amendment to Gordon Sondland’s testimony concerning quid pro quo, the Republican argument has changed from there not being quid pro quo, to the impeachment not being justified because the investigation was never started. They are basically arguing that it doesn’t count unless it was executed. 

On December 5th, Nancy Pelosi officially asks the House to start drafting articles of impeachment.

The House votes to approve the two articles of impeachment on December 13th. Here’s how all the members voted:

Of the 431 members, 3 did not vote on either article of impeachment. One Democrat and two Republicans. 

One person, Tulsi Gabbard, who also happens to be one of the current Democratic presidential candidates voted “present” – which essentially does nothing. 

For the first article of impeachment – the one accusing the President of abuse of power was approved with 229 Democrat votes and one Independent vote in favor of it. Two Democrats and 195 Republicans voted no.

The second article of impeachment – obstruction of Congress, also passed with 228 Democrat votes and one Independent vote in favor. 3 Democrats and 195 Republicans voted no. 

That makes this a highly partisan vote, meaning it was pretty clearly split along party lines. Very few people crossed party lines, which is a trend that we tend to see more and more lately in our political system. 

To end our timeline, for now, Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would finally be voting to send the impeachment articles to the Senate on Wednesday, January 15th, which will allow a trial to begin in the Senate on Tuesday, January 21st. Since the House approved the articles of impeachment, Pelosi has hesitated to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, drawing criticism from Republicans. 

It seemed that she was trying to give time for Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, to agree to include witnesses in the trial, which would make it a longer process. It is still unclear if witnesses will be used in the trial and to what extent.

The 10 managers for the trial have been picked by Nancy Pelosi and voted on in the House and the Senate has set out the rules it plans to use to run the trial.

As the saga continues to unfold, there will be a follow-up episode of Thoughts of Lora explaining what all of that means and the next stage of the impeachment process in the Senate. To listen to the next installment of the impeachment podcast episode, subscribe on Spotify or Apple podcasts so you can get brand new episodes every Friday. 

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