SAIS Explainer Series: Impeachment

The new SAIS Observer Explainer Series aims to help SAIS students understand the most complex issues of the day. No politics — just the facts.

November 12, 2019

By: Ryan Grace

On September 24, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The impetus for this move was a whistleblower report from within the intelligence community detailing a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Democrats have alleged that President Trump threatened to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky agreed to open an investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Congressional efforts to investigate this affair, led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, have thus far relied on various State Department and government officials’ testimony regarding the President’s actions. The focus of the investigation revolves around a few central questions:

  • Did the White House make a meeting between Trump and Zelensky conditional on Ukraine launching investigations into Hunter Biden? 
  • Did Ukraine have reason to believe that military aid was being withheld unless Ukraine initiated the investigations requested by Trump?
  • Has there been a cover-up of the basic facts of Trump’s conduct?

The White House has repeatedly attempted to stymie the Congressional investigation, seeking to prevent various officials, among them Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and White House Counsel Don McGahn, from testifying. As more details of the scheme to discredit the Bidens come to light, Trump has taken to Twitter to call the investigation’s legitimacy into question and accuse the Democrats of leading “compromised kangaroo courts.” Public impeachment hearings have already begun, and with them a deluge of media coverage. It is easy to be overwhelmed by all of this information. As such, here are some key elements you should know about the process:

Impeachment is the legal mechanism by which Congress can remove a president from power should lawmakers decide the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” It is important to note that the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” does not necessarily relate to illegal behavior. Rather, it is commonly understood as being in reference to violations of the president’s oath of office. Historically, the only two U.S. presidents have ever been impeached — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — were ultimately acquitted and completed their terms in office. Amidst the Watergate scandal in 1974, Richard Nixon resigned prior to official impeachment proceedings.

Impeachment proceedings begin with the Speaker of the House declaring an inquiry, as Pelosi did in September. The House then organizes a commission to investigate the president and drafts a list of accusations, known as articles of impeachment. If a simple majority in the House votes “yes” on any of the proposed articles the Senate must then form a trial body presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In the resulting trial, the president is removed from office only if two-thirds of the Senate vote to convict.

Pelosi’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry followed months of Democratic lawmakers pushing for Congressional action. With roughly a year before the 2020 election, and just a few months ahead of the first caucuses, the inquiry’s timing introduces a variety of complications. According to SAIS Professor Steven Schneebaum, “time is not on the Democrats’ side,” as they would likely want to finish the proceedings by December of 2019. If the trial were to drag on into 2020, presidential hopefuls currently in the Senate would need to serve as jurors in the case, distracting them from early caucuses in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Furthermore, a lengthy trial, or one that accuses the President of a laundry list of offenses, may have the effect of turning public opinion in favor of the president. Trump and his supporters have tended to promote a narrative of victimization, in which Democrats have subjected him to constant “witch-hunts.” As such, Democrats face a dilemma in deciding the scope and substance of the investigation. “The broader the net they cast, the more it looks like they are victimizing him,” explained Schneebaum. Efforts to go beyond the Ukraine investigation, which could result in a more damning case against President Trump, also run the risk of galvanizing his supporters and swaying impeachment votes.

Through the coming weeks, Congressional Democrats’ plans for impeachment will gradually become clear to the public. For now, we can be confident that the road to 2020 will be one full of dramatic twists and turns.

Editor’s Note: December 18th the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment, making Donald Trump the third president to be impeached. The first article, “abuse of power,” passed by a simple majority (230-197-1) along party lines. The second article, “obstruction of congress,” also passed in a similar manner down the political aisle (229-198-1). In 2020 the impeachment will move to a trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority vote is needed to remove the president from office. At the time of publication, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, intends to delay the trial until an agreement can be made with Senate Republicans regarding the nature of the trial and the approved list of witnesses to testify.

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