Impeachment Explained: Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and What Happens Next

On Tuesday evening, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would launch a formal impeachment inquiry in response to President Donald Trump allegedly pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate potential 2020 competitor Joe Biden and his family (read all about that here).

And things ramped up this morning as the transcript of the president's call with Volodymyr Zelensky was released by the White House.

"There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great," Trump said to Zelensky, in what is set to be analyzed by talking heads and pundits for years to come. "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it...It sounds horrible to me." The president then said several times that he'd have his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr check up on the matter.

The whistleblower who first brought attention to the call with an unreleased report has also told the House intelligence committee that they would like to testify and it could happen as early as this week.

So what exactly is impeachment?

The constitution allows Congress to remove sitting presidents from their office if they vote that the president has committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Team Trump argues that a high crime or misdemeanor means something like treason and that Democrats are politicizing the issue, but the phrase actually goes back to common law tradition in Britain and can be boiled down to an abuse of power by an elected official.

When the constitution was ratified, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that impeachment was applicable to "those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself."

What Can They Impeach Trump For?

There are a lot of potential articles that the House could throw at the president. They could claim that the president has profited personally from his time in the Oval Office, that he diverted funds from the military to build a border wall, that he violated campaign finance laws or that he obstructed justice by using pardons as a tool. This impeachment was spurred by the Ukraine call, and Congress may recommend articles like prosecution of political opponents or abuse of foreign policy authorities.

Trump at UN
U.S. President Donald Trump waits to take the stage to speak the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 24, 2019 in New York City. Later in the day, Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into Trump. Drew Angerer/Getty

How Does Impeachment Start?

The prior two impeachment proceedings in the U.S., of Bill Clinton in 1998 and Richard Nixon in 1974, began with a full vote in the House.

But Pelosi has taken a different path. The speaker announced yesterday she had instructed the six House committees that already have open investigations of Trump—Judiciary, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Financial Services, Oversight and Foreign Affairs—to proceed with their investigations "under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry."

Not too much should change this way, and Pelosi likely suspects that keeping the investigation at committee-level will allow the body of Congress to focus on passing other important pieces of legislation like gun reform and election security reform. Representative Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has already said his investigation of the president was essentially an impeachment inquiry so in some ways this is business as usual but with a fancy new title.

If anything, the new phrasing will make it harder for the Trump administration to deny Congress the right to see documents or call witnesses to testify.

What's Next?

When the committees wrap up their inquiries, they'll each provide their own input as to what the articles of impeachment should be, if any. The Judiciary Committee will then decide on any official articles and vote over whether to take it to the House floor. If the committee votes to approve the articles, then special status is granted to them on the floor and only a simple majority of lawmakers are needed to approve them.

Want to see what the articles might look like? You can read the articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

Would This House Impeach?

Democrats currently hold a 235 to 198 majority over Republicans in the House, so in short, yes.

According to a count by the New York Times on Tuesday evening, there are 203 House members who favor impeachment proceedings, 88 who are opposed or undecided, and 144 who have yet to say. The House only needs a simple majority to impeach and so it would only take an additional 15 undecideds or non-responders to get there.

The president would then have to make a choice: Resign like Nixon did in 1974 or stand trial in the Senate like Bill Clinton did in 1999.

The Senate

Once the House votes to impeach, the Senate begins the official trial to remove the president from office: remember, an impeachment is a dark mark on a president's permanent record, but they can still remain in office with it.

The Senate, which has a Republican-majority and is led by Mitch McConnell, will very likely let the president off the hook. They might not even bother with a trial, since they'll be very likely to vote to dismiss the charges regardless of what happens.

But if there is a trial, then the Senators take on the role of the jury and the proceedings are overseen by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The House votes on "managers" who present the case against the president. In order to pass through the Senate, there needs to be a two-thirds supermajority vote of 67. There are currently 53 Republican Senators, which means that 14 would have to turn on their own party if he were to be successfully voted out of office. That's very, very unlikely.

What's the Timeline?

Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler says that the House wants to get this all done before the end of their current session in December. Pelsoi didn't give a timeline but said things will get done "expeditiously."

Did I mention that they're also going on a 2-week recess starting next Friday and have no plans to forego the break? It's a tight schedule, my friends.

The whole process, including the Senate trial took 127 days for Bill Clinton. Congress has less than 30 working days until their current session ends.

Impeachment Explained: Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and What Happens Next | U.S.