Updated December 19, 2019
The word “impeachment” has been hard to avoid since the announcement made by House Speaker Pelosi (CA-12) on September 24 that the House Democrats plan to proceed with an impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump. The proceedings have quickly taken over Washington, DC, and cable news with gossip, conjecture, and predictions of the outcome. The inquiry is historically significant due to its uncommon nature. Only two presidents have ever been impeached: President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and President Bill Clinton in 1998. Both presidents were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate. Facing certain impeachment in Congress, President Nixon resigned from office in 1974. Before the end of this year, President Trump will likely be the third president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.
A Possible Quid Quo Pro?
Speaker Pelosi claims that the President violated the federal law by soliciting foreign contributions from Ukraine in the form of election assistance. In addition, the Speaker claims that President Trump set up a “quid quo pro” by withholding funding from Ukraine until they agreed to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who the President claims was paid $600,000 per year to sit on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas firm while holding no real expertise or experience in the field.
President Zelensky’s Inauguration
On May 14, 2019, President Trump instructed Vice President Pence to cancel his plans of attending the inauguration of President Zelensky in Ukraine on May 20, 2019. The U.S. sent Secretary Rick Perry to lead the U.S. delegation to the inauguration. President Trump wanted to know how Zelensky “chose to act” regarding issues important to the U.S., including governmental reforms and the increased transparency promised during his campaign, as some estimates suggest 40% of the Ukrainian economy takes place on the shadow market to avoid taxes.
Suspension of U.S. Security Assistance
On July 18, 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) informed agencies that President Trump had suspended any security assistance supplied by the U.S. In late August, the OMB claimed the aid was under policy review. The aid was meant to be used by Ukraine to help fight against Russian aggression in the region and was approved by Congress as part of the FY2019 funding. In early September, Vice President Pence said the U.S. has “great concerns about issues of corruption.” However, Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, reportedly told Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) the aid was being withheld until Ukraine agreed to launch an investigation. President Trump denied any quid pro quo when asked by Senator Johnson. Additionally, Sondland texted former Ambassador Bill Taylor that the “President has been clear [about] no quid pro quos of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.” The aid was sent to Ukraine on September 11, 2019, along with approval for the sale of anti-tank missiles to the country.
Phone Call Between the U.S. and Ukraine
On July 25, 2019, President Trump called President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to congratulate him on his victory. Such congratulatory calls are common from U.S. presidents to foreign leaders. The rest of the conversation covered several important topics, including…
- America being very good to Ukraine financially
- President Trump asking Zelensky for a favor to
continue investigations regarding…
- A previous investigation done by Robert Mueller into Crowdstrike
- Former Vice President Biden’s efforts to have the last Ukrainian top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who oversaw the investigation of a Ukrainian energy company affiliated with Hunter Biden, fired
- Future phone calls between his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, Attorney General Barr, and Ukraine
- Further discussions about Zelenksy visiting the White House and the two meeting at a conference in Poland
Following the call, several U.S. government officials discussed the call with the whistleblower, who then compiled a complaint and submitted it to the inspector general of the intelligence community.
The Whistleblower Complaint
On August 12, 2019, a whistleblower sent an anonymous complaint to the Inspector General (IG) of the Intelligence Community outlining concerns that the president was using his office to “solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The information contained in the report is based on conversations with multiple U.S. government officials, not directly the conversation between President Trump and Zelensky. It was also not part of the decision to cancel Vice President Pence’s trip to Ukraine or to withhold the security aid. On September 9, 2019, the IG informed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about the whistleblower complaint, but the committee was not given access to the complaint at that time. Following the announcement of a whistleblower complaint to the House Intelligence Committee, the House Judiciary Committee voted to begin a formal impeachment inquiry on September 12, 2019. The full complaint was made available to the Intelligence Committee on September 25, 2019, and on September 26, 2019, a redacted version of the complaint was released to the public.
The whistleblower states in the complaint that he is not a direct witness to most of the events, which were portrayed as the following:
- President Trump using the power of his office
for his own personal gain by…
- Soliciting interference from a foreign country in the upcoming elections
- Pressuring a foreign country to investigate his 2020 rival
- President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr being involved in the allegations described above
- President Trump restricting access, for political reasons, to important documents related to the call with President Zelensky by placing the transcripts on a national security server
- President Trump withholding aid from Ukraine without providing a policy reason
Speaker Pelosi argues the complaints alleged by the whistleblower may supply sufficient evidence of President Trump pressuring a foreign government to help him with his campaign, which she claims is a betrayal of his oath to office.
There are two different votes that may be called by the House of Representatives regarding impeachment. The first is authorizing the House to begin an impeachment inquiry, which the House has not yet taken. Under previous impeachment proceedings, a vote to begin an impeachment inquiry is accompanied by rules that allow a president’s lawyer to be involved in all proceedings, including the power to present evidence, make objections, offer cross-examinations, and suggest witnesses. The rules have also traditionally given the minority party the power of subpoena through the ranking member of any committee with jurisdiction and require any subpoena to be voted on by the full committee. Once the inquiry is complete, it is sent to the Judiciary Committee for a vote, and articles of impeachment are presented to the full House of Representatives.
Once the Judiciary Committee presents the articles of impeachment, the full House must vote to determine whether the articles merit a trial by the Senate. This is the second time the House can vote on impeachment. At this point, if the House votes to approve any of the articles, the president is considered impeached, but the House does not vote to convict the president.
The Rules Behind Impeachment
Impeachment is a complicated process dating back to America’s founding fathers. In Article II, section 4 of the Constitution, an impeachable act is defined as “Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The definition given in Article II is broad and must be interpreted by the members of the House and Senate. In Article I, section 2 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives is granted the “sole Power of Impeachment.” As intimidating as that sounds, it simply means the House makes the decision to start the impeachment process through a majority vote. Under Article I, Section 3, the Senate is given the “sole Power to try all impeachments.” Under Senate rules, if the House approves the articles of impeachment, the Senate must move forward with a trial in which the selected House members serve as the prosecutors, the president or his lawyers act as the defense, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court acts as the judge, and the Senate acts as the jury. The Senate can choose a select group of senators to act as the jury in place of the full Senate. Senators are allowed to provide written questions to the Chief Justice to ask witnesses. Two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, must vote in favor of impeachment for the president to be convicted and removed from office. There is no appeals process.
On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives voted to approve two articles of impeachment against President Trump – one for abuse of power and the other for obstruction of Congress. The articles must next be formally sent to the Senate. As of December 19, 2019, 3 pm, House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi was withholding the articles stating, “The next thing for us will be when we see the process that is set forth in the Senate, then we’ll know the number of managers that we may have to go forward and who we will choose.” “That’s what I said last night, that’s what I’m saying now.” While Pelosi’s comments create a new level of confusion to the impeachment procedure and timeline, it’s unclear what the specific advantages there would be to withholding to the articles of impeachment from a Senate trial. Republicans argue there is no benefit in delaying something they don’t want to spend time on anyway.