The Nation’s Fourth Impeachment Ordeal

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch being sworn in to testify in the impeachment inquiry, Washington, D.C., November 15, 2019

On October 31, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232 to 196 to formalize an inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. For only the fourth time in American history, Congress is considering the impeachment of a sitting president. The U.S. Constitution states that a president can be impeached and removed from office, by Congress, for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” House Democrats aim to establish that President Trump committed impeachable offenses because of his conduct in connection to relations with the nation of Ukraine.

The current inquiry focuses on a phone call of President Trump to Ukraine’s president on July 25, 2019. After months of committee investigations into alleged misconduct by the president, in November the process moved to open public hearings before the House Intelligence Committee, headed by Rep. Adam Schiff (Dem.-CA). After diplomats and intelligence-community officials provided testimony, the action shifted to the House Judiciary Committee. If the House votes to impeach President Trump, the Senate will then take up the matter. A two-thirds majority (at least 67 votes) are needed to convict, or remove a president from office. That outcome has never occurred in American history.

Concerns about the phone call were first raised by an anonymous “whistleblower” within the intelligence community who learned of it secondhand. A rough transcript of the call was then released by the Trump administration on September 25. Most observers view the interaction on the call as involving a quid pro quo (Latin: “something for something”), meaning a leveraged exchange in which pressure is applied in order to obtain a favor. The basic allegation is that about $400 million of U.S. military aid for Ukraine, which had been authorized by Congress, was held up by the Trump administration unless Ukraine officially investigated dealings by former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden involving Ukraine.

Because impeachment is a political process, and not strictly a legal matter, the nature of the alleged criminal conduct is essentially whatever the House determines it to be. If articles of impeachment against President Trump are passed by the House of Representatives, that does not mean his removal from office, however. According to the Constitution, the Senate acts as both jury and judge. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate. In 1974, President Richard Nixon was not technically impeached—but his removal was all but certain if the process had gone forward. Instead, Nixon resigned. In 1998–99, in the case that most closely resembles the present moment, Democratic president Bill Clinton was impeached by the Republican-controlled House. But he was not convicted by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Today, the party roles are reversed: Trump is likely to be impeached by the Democratic-controlled House but acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate. Whatever the outcome, there is a presidential election less than a year away. On November 3, 2020, the voters will decide whether Trump remains in office and whether the Democrats’ gambit was a political success.

Image credit: ©Alex Wong/Reuters

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