The speculation over Democrats calling for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump has been swirling with varying levels of seriousness, and may be reaching a possible tipping point with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she is officially launching an impeachment inquiry.
The phone conversation with the Ukrainian president may be the most recent issue to raise a clamor of calls for impeachment hearings, but this is far from the first time that the prospect has come up during Trump’s administration, and the president has weighed in previously.
He tweeted about it in January — the day after the 116th Congress was sworn in — asking, “How do you impeach a president who has won perhaps the greatest election of all time, done nothing wrong (no Collusion with Russia, it was the Dems that Colluded), had the most successful first two years of any president, and is the most popular Republican in party history 93%.”
He expressed similar disbelief in December 2018, saying that he wasn’t worried about impeachment shortly after his former personal attorney Michael Cohen was sentenced to federal prison for financial crimes.
“It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump told Reuters on Dec. 11.
Most recently, in the immediate wake of Pelosi’s announcement of the impeachment inquiry, Trump tweeted referring to the “breaking news Witch Hunt garbage” and not explicitly mentioning the inquiry. He also tweeted “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!”
Here is a breakdown of how the process unfolds, if and when it happens.
The presidential impeachment process
An impeachment proceeding is the formal process by which a sitting president of the United States may be accused of wrongdoing. The articles of impeachment are the list of charges drafted against the president. The vice president and all civil officers of the U.S. can also face impeachment.
The process begins in the U.S. House of Representatives, where any member of the House may make a suggestion to launch an impeachment proceeding. It is then up to the speaker of the House, as leader of the majority party, to determine whether or not to proceed with an inquiry into the alleged wrongdoing.
“The critical determination comes to the speaker about whether or not to forward it,” Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina who authored a book on the impeachment process, told ABC News in 2017.
Pelosi returned to the role of House Speaker after the 2018 midterm elections.
She had appeared reluctant to move to impeachment proceedings for months, including in June, when she told Democrats, “I don’t want see him impeached, I want to see him in prison.” At the time, questions over impeachment mostly centered on the Mueller report, a separate investigation than the one launched Tuesday related to Ukraine.
Her tone appears to have shifted in recent weeks, in the wake of the revelations about Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where the nature of his comments about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son’ Hunter Biden and whether or not Trump urged Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden’s activity in an effort to help Trump in the 2020 election.
Pelosi announced the formal opening of an impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, saying, “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
If there is a decision to move forward with impeachment proceedings, the speaker would decide if the House Judiciary Committee handles the impeachment inquiry, or if a separate special committee is formed.
The special committee would be empowered to broaden the focus of the inquiry — or investigation.
If the speaker assigns the House Judiciary Committee to investigate, there is no time limit placed on their investigation and a likely public hearing would be scheduled at the discretion of the committee chair to vote on the articles of impeachment.
A simple majority of the members of the committee would have to vote in favor of approving an article or articles of impeachment in order to proceed to a vote by the full House. The House Judiciary Committee currently consists of 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans; 21 votes in favor would be necessary.
Each article of impeachment that is passed by a simple majority vote in committee would then be voted on by the full House of Representatives. If any of those articles gets a simple majority vote, which is 50% plus one more vote, “the House will have impeached the president,” Gerhardt said.
What does an impeachment vote mean for a sitting president?
A president can continue governing even after he or she has been impeached by the House of Representatives. After then-President Bill Clinton was impeached on Dec. 19, 1998, he remained president for another year, during which time he was acquitted in a Senate impeachment trial. While Clinton continued governing, and the impeachment had no legal or official impact, his legacy is marred by the proceeding.
Where does the Senate come in?
The U.S. Senate votes on articles of impeachment and acquits President Bill Clinton, February 12, 1999.
The Senate is tasked with handling the impeachment trial in which there is a higher threshold that must be reached in order for an impeachment to go forward. What that means is that in the Senate, a higher percentage of the body has to vote in favor of conviction than in the House of Representatives. In the House, a simple majority is needed, and in the Senate, they need a two-thirds majority, or 67%.
“If the Senate fails to convict, then [the president] will have been impeached but not removed,” Gerhardt said, pointing to Presidents Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson as examples of this. In neither Clinton nor Johnson’s Senate trials was a two-thirds majority reached.
According to the Constitution, at least two-thirds of the Senate has to concur to convict and remove the president from office. Once the president is removed, the vice president typically succeeds him or the normal course of the line of succession will be followed.
While the Senate trial has the power to oust a president from office, it does not have the power to send a president to jail.
Suzanna Sherry, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in constitutional law, said of what the Senate conviction can actually do in terms of punishment, “The worst that can happen is that he is removed from office, that’s the sole punishment.”
That said, a president can face later criminal charges. Sherry points to the constitutional note that “the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.”
One important factor to keep in mind about the outcomes of a Senate impeachment trial is that neither of the previous such trials has ever reached a conviction — they both ended in acquittals — so there is no precedent where the vice president or anyone else in the line of succession has taken over.
Past presidential impeachments
No U.S. president has ever been forced out of office as a result of an impeachment. There have been three presidents who have either been impeached or come close: Clinton, Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Nixon faced articles of impeachment, meaning that the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment in relation to the Watergate scandal, but didn’t let the process get any further.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
Richard Nixon smiles and gives the victory sign as he boards the White House helicopter after resigning the presidency, Aug. 9, 1974.
“He faced articles of impeachment but he resigned before the house could impeach him,” Gerhardt said.
Johnson was one vote shy of being convicted by the Senate, whose impeachment included 11 charges and the majority of those had to do with the firing of his secretary of war, which went against a tenure act.
Clinton, whose impeachment was connected to the cover-up of his affair with Monica Lewinsky while in office, was 22 votes away from reaching the necessary number of votes in the Senate.
Justification for impeachment
When it comes to impeachment, the Constitution lists “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” as justification for the proceedings, but the vagueness of the third option has caused problems in the past.
“It was a central issue with Andrew Johnson, and there was a question during Clinton’s proceedings about whether his lie was a ‘low’ crime or a ‘high’ crime,” Gerhardt said.
President Donald Trump walks with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Nov. 16, 2017, as they leave a meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sherry said that “nobody knows” what is specifically included or not included in the Constitution’s broad definition.
“It’s only happened twice and so the general thought is that it means whatever the House and the Senate think it means,” Sherry said, explaining that the speaker of the House is the one to call for a committee to investigate, and even if the House approves the article or articles of impeachment, the senators can choose to vote against the articles if they feel they are not appropriate.