WASHINGTON – US House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, announced on Tuesday the opening of an impeachment inquiry in Congress against President Donald Trump for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
This launches a complicated process that may not prosper in Congress, given the fact that – although Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives, where these proceedings begin – later the matter would have to pass to the Senate, where the Republican majority could ensure that it does not result in a conviction.
These are the basic elements of impeachment, which could lead to the removal of a president from office.
What is impeachment?
In general, it can be defined as a process whereby the Legislative Branch can remove a president if a majority of lawmakers determine that he has committed a crime.
Specifically, impeachment is a process in which a public official is accused of violating the law and subjected to scrutiny and a trial in the Senate, although this does not mean that he will automatically be removed from office.
According to the US Constitution, the president, the vice president and all civil officials in the country “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
But given the breadth of that definition, Congress can begin an impeachment inquiry due to alleged criminal activity, abuses of power or any other presumed infraction.
How does the process begin?
Normally, the House Judiciary Committee is the body that initiates the process, issuing a resolution listing the charges on which the president will be “judged,” and lawmakers in the House and, later, in the Senate will then vote on whether those charges have been proven to their satisfaction.
The reasons for removal, called the Articles of Impeachment, are sent to the full lower chamber, where they are debated and ultimately voted on by all members.
If one of those articles is approved by a simple majority of the House lawmakers, the president will have to submit to a trial in the Senate. That does not mean, however, that he will have to cease performing his duties as president, since the final decision on whether or not to remove him rests with the upper house.
Once the first phase of the process is completed in the House, the Senate receives the Articles of Impeachment and senators agree on the rules and procedures that will be followed in assessing them.
The Senate trial
The actual impeachment trial is conducted in the Senate, where a group of senators is selected to act as prosecutors while the remaining lawmakers become the “jury.” A two-thirds majority is required to convict the president.
In this part of the process, the president will be represented by his attorneys.
After hearing arguments for and against impeachment, the senators will meet in private session to discuss and debate the matter and their verdict. They will vote on the articles of impeachment in a public session and, as mentioned, a two-thirds majority will be required to convict on any one of those charges.
If the two-thirds majority is attained on at least one of the charges, the president will be removed from office and, if the Senate so decides, he may be permanently prohibited from engaging in any public administrative activity.
Precedents in US history
Three presidents have faced impeachment proceedings and two of them – Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998-99 – were acquitted, however Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 when impeachment proceedings were launched against him over the Watergate scandal, and so no final Senate vote was ever held in that case.
The only US president who left office before his second term was over was Nixon, a Republican, who governed from 1969-1974.
On the other hand, the two presidents who had to submit to impeachment proceedings and a Senate vote, Johnson and Clinton, were both Democrats. Both, however, were acquitted of the charges against them and remained in office to serve out their full terms.
Clinton’s case, the most controversial in the modern era, came about as a result of the sex scandal involving him and White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1998, but 55 of the 100 senators voted to acquit him of the charge of perjury and there was a tie on the charge of obstruction of justice. In the absence of the two-thirds majority required to remove him from office, he remained president.