The Capitol is seen from the Cannon House Office Building rotunda, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, April 18, 2019.
FILE - The Capitol is seen from the Cannon House Office Building rotunda, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, April 18, 2019.

WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday announced a “formal impeachment inquiry” into President Donald Trump, escalating a long-running clash between Democratic lawmakers and the White House over alleged presidential malfeasance. The announcement followed disclosures that Trump in a July 25 call to Ukraine’s president asked him to investigate front-running Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Here are nine things you need to know about the festering impeachment controversy.
 
What is impeachment?

This refers to the constitutional process of removing a sitting president from office. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to oust a president for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” While there is no single definition of the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors,” it is generally understood to include actions that violate the oath of office and the public trust. The impeachment process begins with formal charges brought in the House of Representatives and ends with a trial in the Senate where two-thirds of senators must vote to convict the president.

This would be the fourth congressional impeachment attempt in history. Former presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached and brought to trial in the Senate, but subsequently won acquittal. Former President Richard M. Nixon resigned before being impeached in the House.

What happened on Tuesday?

To be clear, what Pelosi did is at least several steps from formal action against Trump. By ordering a formal impeachment inquiry, Pelosi brought a half dozen House investigations of Trump under a new rubric.  She instructed the chairmen of six House committees — Intelligence, Judiciary, Government Oversight, Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means and Financial Services — to speed up their investigations to determine whether to impeach Trump.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2019.

Why Did Pelosi decide to act now?

For months, Pelosi resisted calls from many liberal members of her party to impeach the president. The tipping point came when details of Trump’s call to the Ukrainian leader and a whistleblower complaint by an anonymous intelligence official leaked this month. Then, a group of eight moderate Democrats who had previously opposed impeachment wrote a column this week saying they now favored impeachment.

How will this impact the ongoing investigations?

The administration so far refused to cooperate with the six investigating panels, declining subpoenas to produce documents and witnesses.  With the launch of the impeachment inquiry, the courts are more likely to rule in favor of congressional subpoenas, according to Susan Low Bloch, a constitutional scholar at Georgetown University.

What are articles of impeachment, and how can the House bring them up against a president?

Articles of Impeachment are formal charges against a president brought in the House of Representatives.  A simple majority vote is needed to pass an article of impeachment. In the Bill Clinton impeachment case in 1998, the House considered four articles of impeachment but ultimately approved two, charging him with lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice.

How close are we to a House Judiciary vote and action by the full House?

With the administration trying to stall the investigations, the impeachment inquiry is likely to drag on for months. Even if lower courts rule in favor of the House, the White House could take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court where Republican-appointed justices hold sway.  Impeachment is not a given, said Norman Ornstein, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “What we have is a process trying to delay this as long as possible.” Bottom line: Don’t expect a House impeachment vote any time soon. 

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump waves after speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, June 14, 2019.

What is the Senate trial process?

Once the House passes one or more articles of impeachment, the process shifts to the Senate where a trial is conducted. The proceeding is presided over by the chief justice of the United States. House Judiciary Committee members serve as prosecutors, while the president is represented by his defense lawyers. It takes two-thirds of senators to convict the president on any one count. Republicans currently hold a 53 to 47 seat majority in the Senate.  If the president were found guilty, he would be expelled from office and replaced by the vice president. 

What’s the point of impeaching the president if the Republican-controlled Senate won’t convict a Republican president?

It’s a question that’s often asked, and one that was shouted at Pelosi Tuesday after she announced the impeachment inquiry. For many Democrats, it comes down to principle, having sworn to uphold the Constitution and safeguard the republic, said Melanie Sloan, a senior adviser at American Oversight, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog.

What about the risks to the Democrats of a political blowback?

With just 6% of Republican voters in favor of impeachment and most Republican senators in the president’s corner, the prospect of a failed impeachment could backfire against the Democrats, allowing Trump to claim vindication and boosting his 2020 re-election prospects. Clinton survived impeachment in 1998, and he saw his party surge to victory in the following midterm elections.

 

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