CAPITOL HILL - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives began the formal process of impeaching U.S. President Donald Trump this week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the first step in the impeachment process Tuesday, following reports that a whistleblower filed a complaint alleging Trump sought foreign interference into the 2020 election.
What triggered House Democrats to begin a formal impeachment inquiry?
Investigations into Trump’s administration and his campaign’s actions during the 2016 presidential election were already underway in six House committees at the beginning of this week. Many House Democrats already backed impeachment, but until this week opposition leaders had resisted calls for launching the impeachment inquiry. They believed such an inquiry had no chance of passing the Republican-led Senate and could end up hurting Democrats in the 2020 election.
The new whistleblower report appears to have dramatically shifted the politics of the issue.
Several additional House Democrats came forward in support of an impeachment inquiry. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday the House would embark on the first step of the impeachment process to determine if Trump had committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” the U.S. Constitution lays out as the standard for removing a president from office.
What do we know about the whistleblower?
The whistleblower remains anonymous under laws protecting government workers who expose wrongdoing. But he or she is a U.S. government employee who had knowledge of Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and spoke to other U.S. officials who shared similar concerns over the legality of the president's actions. Although the whistleblower did not have direct knowledge of the Zelenskiy phone call, an independent investigator for the U.S. government found the allegations were credible.
The New York Times has reported the whistleblower is a CIA employee who has spent some time working in the White House during the Trump administration.
The complaint alleges a number of offenses on the part of Trump and U.S. officials. The most serious of the allegations is that Trump implied congressionally-approved U.S. aid to Ukraine was contingent upon Zelenskiy's government providing information on the son of 2020 presidential election rival, Joe Biden. The complaint also alleges White House officials were aware of the gravity of Trump’s actions and covered up records of the phone call.
How was the whistleblower complaint handled by the government?
Democrats are pledging to investigate both the allegations in the complaint as well as how the Trump administration handled it.
Under the whistleblower process, the complaint was summarized in a letter that was addressed to senior lawmakers in the House and Senate committees, which oversee the intelligence community. That August 12 letter was sent to the inspector general at the CIA, which worked to try to substantiate some of the allegations. But instead of sending the letter on to the lawmakers in Congress after two weeks, as required by law, Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, instead held it from lawmakers while he consulted with the White House and the Department of Justice about the allegations.
Democratic lawmakers argue Trump administration officials tried to keep the allegations from reaching Congress, violating the procedure for dealing with such issues.
Maguire told members of Congress Thursday he had acted lawfully in initially blocking the release of the complaint due to concerns about executive privilege, a legal right of the U.S. presidency to keep some conversations and documents private.
What do we know about the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call?
The White House released a summary of Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy Wednesday. In a memo reconstructed from the work of White House note takers, Trump asks Zelenskiy to investigate business dealings of former Vice President Biden and his son, Hunter.
Trump also reminds the Ukrainian president that “the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.” Trump ordered a freeze on $400 million of congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine just a few days before that phone call. Trump said this week the order was part of an effort to combat corruption.
Congressional Democrats say the memo is clear evidence of the president proposing a so-called “quid pro quo,” an exchange of one favor for another. But the president’s allies on Capitol Hill said the memo completely exonerated him.
What will happen next in the U.S. Congress?
The House committees investigating the president’s actions will begin building a case that could lead to the drafting of articles of impeachment.
Articles are formal charges against the president that are voted on by the entire U.S. House of Representatives.
Impeachment is a two-step process. If the House votes on and passes the articles, the president is considered impeached and the case moves to the U.S. Senate for a process that is similar to a court trial. If a two-thirds super majority of the U.S. Senate votes to convict, the president is removed from office.
Only two U.S. presidents have been impeached by the U.S. House – Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. The U.S. Senate has never voted to remove a president from office.
How soon can we expect a vote on impeachment?
Pelosi has cautioned that there should be a careful gathering of facts so that lawmakers do not rush to judgement. But many House Democrats want to see the vote on articles of impeachment before the end of the year. The 2020 presidential election gets fully underway with the Iowa caucuses in February. Many Democrats believe it would be politically risky to have an impeachment vote occurring at the same time.
As of Friday, 225 House Democrats and one independent member of the U.S. House of Representatives support impeachment or an impeachment inquiry. Until articles of impeachment are drafted, it is unknown how many members would vote in support of impeaching Trump.