By Ali Ahmed ‘22 and Shruti Garg ‘20
Last December, U.S. President Donald Trump became the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.
But what does that really mean?
The term “impeachment” originated from the British Isles to describe the process of ousting any British Government members for high treason or other misdemeanors. In the U.S., when an official is impeached, accusations brought against them have proven worthy of trial (similar to the assessment a Grand Jury makes on criminal cases). Once impeached, the official will stand trial, and, if found guilty, will lose their office and any future opportunities to hold office. The conviction in this trial only holds power to strip the official of office.
The Founding Fathers adopted this impeachment process to check the power of high-ranking officials. While any U.S. civil officer can face impeachment, Congress often reserves the power for the U.S. Government’s highest officials. Out of nineteen previously impeached federal officials, three were Presidents: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald J. Trump (Richard M. Nixon resigned before impeachment proceedings could continue).
The power of impeaching officials lies solely in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the U.S. Congress (as per Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution). If the House chooses to place a civil officer on trial, the Senate (the upper Congressional house) serves as the jury for the trial. To convict the official, a supermajority (⅔) of the Senate must vote in favor of impeachment.
The impeachment charges against President Trump originate from a phone call discussing federal aid with the Ukrainian President, Vlodymyr Zelensky. In this call, Trump (notably) says, “I would like you to do us a favor though…” He was asking Zelensky’s government to investigate his rival’s child. Hunter Biden, Presidential Candidate Joe Biden’s son, was a member of a Ukrainian power firm, Burisma Holdings, and this investigation was an attempt to weaken Joe Biden’s reputation for the upcoming 2020 election. On top of this inquiry, Trump illegally withheld Congressionally mandated aid totalling $400 million to the Ukranian military sparking accusations of quid pro quo, Latin for “a favor for a favor.”
The president’s alleged crimes became apparent after an unknown whistleblower, someone who leaks classified documents to reveal the wrongdoings of civil officers, filed a complaint in respect to foreign electoral intervention in the 2020 Presidential Election. Trump’s repeated responses to the whistleblower’s actions and loud questioning of the whistleblower’s validity have won Trump the Politifact Lie of the Year 2019. Even though the president accused the whistleblower of lying and getting the account “mostly wrong,” the whistleblower in fact got the phone call “almost completely right.” In response to the accusation of foreign intervention solicitation and the multiple cries for the revelation of information, the White House released a rough transcript of the call originally alluded to in the complaint that highlighted the administration’s crimes. Once declassified, many officials, journalists, and analysts interpreted the call as a clear example of quid pro quo: the release of $400 million in aid in exchange for an investigation into a political rival’s family. Given the unclassified information, many have accused Trump of soliciting interference from a foreign government in the 2020 Presidential election, undermining the American democratic process.
The impeachment proceedings began with Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, approving Congressional hearings on September 24, 2019. In these hearings, officials, both public and civilian, testify to a Committee of the House. The House Intelligence Committee, Oversight Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee, all held preliminary hearings before recommending impeachment to the House Judiciary Committee. The House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the fair administration of the law in federal courts, held its own hearings of notable members of the Administration who testified against Trump, including Gordon Sondland, Marie Yovanovitch, and William Taylor. Sondland served as the ambassador to the EU, and Yovanovitch and Taylor both served as former ambassadors to Ukraine. Finally, in a party line vote, the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), voted to recommend two articles of impeachment to the House of Representatives, much to the disapproval of minority committee leader Doug Collins (R-GA).
Once the articles of impeachment were submitted to the House, the House voted on the two articles of impeachment. The first highlighted his abuse of power, stating that he used his powers as President to solicit foreign intervention in the election. The second article highlighted his obstruction of Congress, stating that he defied subpoenas (legal orders to give information) and asked his administration to defy subpoenas to protect himself as well. The House of Representatives then voted on both articles. In order to pass Articles of Impeachment, a simple majority must vote in favor of the articles. Since the Democrats hold a majority in Congress, both articles passed. However, both articles passed almost strictly on party lines, with Republicans all voting against, and all but three Democrats voting for.
After the passing of both articles, the articles must be sent to the Senate for trial of the President. However, despite the desire for Democrats to hold a trial, the Speaker Pelosi had refrained from sending the articles to the Senate for trial. The reasoning behind this remains complicated, but the major factor behind the wait lies in the commitment towards impartiality by Republicans. The majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and a number of other Republicans have voiced their intentions to support the President at all costs. In an interview with FOX News, McConnell voices his partisan viewpoint: “During this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and [the Republican] position as to how to handle this, to the extent that we can.” In addition, McConnell plans, with Republican support, to hold the trial with minimal witnesses and testimonies. According to Pelosi, this violates the oath every Senator must take before an impeachment trial: an oath of impartiality. By refusing to send the articles to the Senate, Pelosi hoped to both gain some leveraging power and force concessions on the manner of the trial.
As of January 15, 2020, Pelosi sent the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate, and the Senate has decided on the rules for the trial. The rules of the trials reflect those similar to the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999. However, Republicans struck down eleven different amendments proposed by Democrats to the trial rules (remember, trial rules aren’t set by the Constitution; they are set by the Senate). In addition, McConnell has remained committed to reducing the number of witnesses allowed in the trial, sparking outrage from Democrats. However, given that Republicans control the Senate, Democrats have little say in the actual trial, and so will proceed on Republican terms.
The question, now, that Trump’s impeachment brings, is whether the Senate will convict him; many political gurus concur resoundingly that the Senate will not. For one, Trump is being accused of “High Crimes and Misdemeanours.” Among the other high crimes that can be cause for impeachment (Bribery, Treason), this loose phrase has been highly debated. Therefore, one can expect a lot of debate throughout the trial upon these words, which may weaken the Democrats’ arguments.
More importantly, the party line House votes demonstrated that the voting during this process will most likely closely follow partisan loyalties. Moreover, smear campaigns threaten to damage careers of Republicans speaking against Trump (the President himself bragged at a rally in Lewis Center, OH that he only “destroys careers” of anti-Trump Republicans because “they said bad things about [him]”) and discourage moderate Republicans from voting against Trump. Instead of voting based on thorough and impartial analysis of evidence presented, one can expect both parties in the jury (the Senate) to vote sentimentally: Democrats in favor and Republicans against impeachment. Since Republicans currently occupy over half the Senate, with 53 seats compared to 45 Democratic seats (with two Democratic-leaning independent seats), voting along party lines will not gain the supermajority required to convict the president. Changing this outcome would require an incredible change of heart from the Republicans about Trump due to a major event, or an undeniably incriminating and shocking piece of evidence against Trump surfacing.
Carl Hulse, The New York Time’s chief Washington correspondent and the author of Confirmation Bias: Inside Washington’s War Over the Supreme Court, reports that “Democrat party leaders” hope that the Republican attitudes towards impeachment will “energize their voters” in the upcoming elections (in his NY Times article Facing Blockade in Senate, House Democrats Bet Their Votes Are Worth It). This Democratic sentiment grounds popular political speculation that Democrats know the unlikelihood of Trump’s conviction, yet pushed the impeachment through to possibly discourage the Republican party from running Trump for re-election. At the very least, Democrats wish to sway public opinion to keep Trump from re-election. However, Trump’s impeachment will most likely not discourage either his voter base or his Republican support. If anything, one can expect the partisan split in the country and the government only to get stronger as many of Trump’s supporters see the impeachment as an unfair attack upon the president elected democratically, and as such an attack on democracy.
As the events of the impeachment unfold, the nation will brace for the political turmoil that lies ahead. As impeachments of both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton have done before, the impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump will set a precedent for future impeachments. As the events proceed, the country can only speculate on how the trial and conviction will play out.
Sidenote: The notation used for Representatives and Senators represents their political affiliation and the state they represent. (D-XY) denotes a Democratic Congressmen, (R-XY) denotes a Republican Congressman, and XY represents the state the Congressmen represent.
Photo Credit: United States House of Representatives [Public domain]