For just the fourth time in U.S. history, the House of Representatives has launched a formal impeachment inquiry against a sitting president. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the probe Tuesday evening, saying President Donald Trump must be held accountable for reportedly using a foreign leader to try to influence an election.
"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," Pelosi said.
Less than 36 hours later, the House Intelligence Committee was grilling Joseph Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence, about the whistleblower complaint that prompted Pelosi to issue the green light after years of impeachment threats.
What does the impeachment process involve?
The steps for the impeachment of a president are outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which gives each chamber of Congress a clear role in the two-part process: impeachment and removal. It starts, as we saw on Tuesday, with a formal inquiry filed by the Speaker of the House. In order to proceed beyond an inquiry, a House committee must determine that the president has committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The charges are called “articles of impeachment.”
According to NBC News, the speaker has decided that all committees currently investigating the president—Oversight, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Financial Services, Foreign Services and Judiciary—will continue to do so under “an umbrella of impeachment inquiry.” Fox News reports that California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff is taking the lead in the investigation as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
If a simple majority of the House committee votes in favor of the articles of impeachment, each charge would advance to the full House for a vote. Only a simple majority is required for impeachment in that chamber. Some experts liken impeachment to an indictment in a traditional court.
Impeachment does not equate to the removal from office
In the three previous cases where a president has been impeached—Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton—none were removed from office. Jackson and Clinton were both acquitted by the Senate, while Nixon resigned before the second phase of the process.
Once a president is officially impeached, the case advances to the U.S. Senate, which is tasked with conducting an actual trial. The proceedings are overseen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, which is John Roberts. Like a criminal case, the president is entitled to legal counsel, and both sides can call witnesses and present evidence. House lawmakers are selected to act as “managers” or prosecutors during the trial, while the Senators act as a jury.
After public hearings, the Senate deliberates behind closed doors, though the formal vote is done in public.
What is required for a president to be removed from office?
Unlike the impeachment process, vote for removal in the Senate requires a two-thirds majority.
"If the Senate fails to convict, then [the president] will have been impeached but not removed," Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina and who authored a book on the impeachment process, told ABC News.
If, however, the two-thirds threshold is met, the president would be removed from office immediately and there is no appeal mechanism. The Vice President would be the next in line to succeed the former president.
The Senate can also decide whether to ban a president from ever holding federal office again. That vote only requires a simple majority. Beyond removal of office, the Congress can enact no further punishment or criminal proceedings, although once a civilian, a removed president could face criminal charges through the justice system.
Although the Constitution clearly spells out the process for impeachment the results and ramifications are anything but. Although the definitions of treason and bribery are clearly defined, there is a widespread interpretation of what “high crimes and misdemeanors" means.
According to the New York Times, the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” originated in Britain.
“Essentially, it means an abuse of power by a high-level public official. This does not necessarily have to be a violation of an ordinary criminal statute,” the publication wrote.
Suzanna Sherry, a constitutional law professor at Vanderbilt University, told ABC that “nobody knows" what is specifically covered by the phrase.
"It’s only happened twice and so the general thought is that it means whatever the House and the Senate think it means, "Such was the case during the Clinton impeachment when there was fiery debate over “whether his lie was a ‘low’ crime or a ‘high’ crime," Gerhardt said.
In the Trump case, Democrats maintain the president interfered with the election process, while Republicans have said there is no evidence of quid pro quo and that the president was merely doing his job by seeking out potential corruption involving a country receiving U.S. aid.
“There was no quid pro quo and nothing to justify the clamor House Democrats caused,” Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins said. “The real danger here is that Democrats keep using baseless accusations in hopes of crippling a successful presidency.”
In addition to the president, impeachment proceeding may also be put in motion against a vice president and federal judges. To date, 19 people have been impeached by the House and, after Senate impeachment trials, only eight, all federal judges, have actually been removed from office.
Photo courtesy: Getty Images/Zach Gibson/Stringer
Lori Arnold is a national award-winning journalist whose experience includes 16 years at a daily community newspaper in San Diego and 16 years as writer-editor for the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and is a member of the Evangelical Press Association.