You’ve seen the headlines: Democrats aren’t impeaching; wait, they might be; in any event, it’s still complicated. But what’s really happening with the possibility of the Democratic-majority House of Representatives starting impeachment proceedings against President Trump? Why is our government at this impasse? And what’s likely to be next?
First: what impeachment is and why we have it.
The U.S. Constitution sought to separate the powers of government by giving each branch — executive, judicial, legislative — its own powers, including ways to check the powers of the other branches. Impeachment, which comes from the British constitution’s process for parliament to hold royal ministers accountable, is a power given to both branches of Congress (more on that in a minute) to remove the President, Vice President, “and all Civil Officers” if found convicted of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” (Do I sound like your AP Gov teacher yet?)
We have James Madison to thank for that clause, though Virginia delegate George Mason is credited for suggesting it. Madison fought for its inclusion, saying that a four-year election cycle wasn’t enough to protect the country from a corrupt leader. “Shall the man who has practiced corruption, and by that means proceed his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt?” Mason asked rhetorically, according to Smithsonian magazine, which I imagine shut the whole debate down for a while.
In the 18 times that Congress has considered impeachment over the last 200 or so years, that key phrase — “high crimes and misdemeanors”— has been interpreted to include crimes of being “habitually drunk,” submitting false expense accounts, filing false income tax returns, lying under oath, and obstruction of justice, among others.
The Constitution gets granular on how impeachment works. First, the House Judiciary Committee needs to hold a hearing and prepare articles of impeachment, listing the charges against the official. If a majority of that committee votes to approve the articles, they will go to the whole House, which will debate and vote on them. If a majority of the House agrees with the Committee and votes to impeach the official on any of the articles, the whole process will move to the Senate, where the official will stand trial. If two-thirds of Senators vote to convict the official, they’ll be officially removed from office and could potentially be banned from holding public office ever again.
In brief: this check on the executive branch is split between both houses of Congress. The House can impeach the president (or any other official), but only the Senate can convict them of the charges and actually remove them from office.
And therein lies our government’s current rub. With a Democratic House but a Republican Senate in a time of extreme partisanship, when it’s unlikely that elected officials will betray party lines, we’re at a bit of an impasse.
What’s happened to make impeachment relevant?
Though impeachment is an inherently political process — it comes with no criminal charges or repercussions, just political ones — it’s not something that’s spoken of lightly. But Trump’s presidency has been full of scandals and accusations that have led policymakers to consider the process.
Sam Nelson, associate professor of political science at the University of Toledo, gave us a rundown of potential charges: “While a variety of charges and claims have been raised as possible bases for impeachment, from the findings of the Mueller report on collusion and obstruction of justice, to emoluments”— those are profits gained from foreign powers while holding office, and they’re prohibited in the Constitution — “and conflicts of interest, the recent controversy over a whistleblower report involving President Trump’s communications with Ukraine now represent the most likely basis for an impeachment inquiry.”
(Reminder that the Mueller report found that Trump did attempt to interfere with investigations of him, but declined to make a recommendation as to whether or not Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice, though the report’s authors did say that they would have said that he definitively did not commit obstruction of justice if they could have, according to TIME.)
Whether the charges are obstruction of justice, collusion, profiting from the presidency, or others, in the minds of many, there are lots of potential reasons for the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing and prepare articles of impeachment. So why did they wait?
Why they waited…
House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi repeatedly said that she thought impeachment would be “so divisive” and that she didn’t think “we should go down that path, because it divides the country.” She was right; the latest polls, which were done before the news of these new allegations regarding Ukraine, found that 37 percent of registered voters said the House should begin impeachment procedures, and half said they should not.
And beyond public opinion, Pelosi’s comments have been interpreted to mean that she thinks that even if the House impeaches Trump, the Senate will not convict him, giving Trump a powerful message — something like “the corrupt witch hunt tried again to get me out but it was all lies”— to use in the 2020 elections, which could hurt Democrats in both the presidential and congressional races.
On Monday, a few more Democratic lawmakers publicly came out in support of beginning the impeachment process.
What happened today and what’s likely to be next…
Lawmakers and commentators have implored the Democrats to start the impeachment process even if it won’t end in a conviction, citing the impact it would have on public morale and trust in the government. “The probability of impeaching President Trump [is] extremely low,” lawyer and CEO of LegalAdvice.com David Reischer said.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) September 24, 2019
Her reasoning had to do with the Ukraine scandal. That scandal, as a reminder, is the one in which President Trump admitted to bringing up Joe Biden with the new leader of Ukraine — and allegedly may have pressured him to investigate Biden’s son in exchange for military aid — on a call. A whistleblower reported it in August, according to The Guardian.
When will we know more? President Trump has announced that he will release a transcript of the call on Wednesday, September 25, as Politico reported. And on Thursday, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is set to testify before the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower report. Until then, I suggest we all keep refreshing Twitter and scanning headlines and brushing up on our James Madison-George Mason political theory.