On October 31st, the US House of Representatives voted to formalize the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. This has been the story since Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced her support for an investigation in September and it will continue to dominate headlines until the process ends.
So, what is impeachment and what should you know about it?
Simply put, impeachment is the constitutional process to bring forth charges against a government official – in this case, the President of the United States. It does not remove the President from office. Instead, it’s a way to ensure that there is legal accountability for office holders and is a critical part of the checks and balances system of American government. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to bring forth charges against a president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. What is a high crime or misdemeanor? There is no definition in US constitutional law, it’s simply whatever the House of Representatives says it is.
In the instance of President Trump, six committees in the House of Representatives (Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Oversight, Ways and Means, and Financial Services) have been directed to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, gather evidence and submit their findings to the Judiciary Committee. If impeachable offenses are unearthed, the Judiciary Committee will draft articles of impeachment that the House votes on individually.
Until now, Democrats had been holding closed door hearing to gather evidence for a potential impeachment inquiry, angering Republicans. With the vote to formalize the process, Democrats will now move the process into the public eye and hope to build public support for impeachment and unite the caucus.
The vote formalized the impeachment process by outlining a set of rules for inquiries as well as a timeline for public hearings before a formal impeachment vote. The White House has been refusing to cooperate with Congress, demanding that officials ignore Congressional subpoenas. They argued that in the absence of a formal vote, the impeachment process was invalid. Following the October 31st vote, that argument is now invalid.
Not with just a vote in the House of Representatives. The Senate has the sole power to remove a president from office through a trial that is presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. To convict, a two-thirds majority in the Senate is required. If every Democrat and the two independents in the Senate were to vote in favor of removing the President, they would still need support from 20 Republicans. Currently, Senate Republicans are standing with the President.
The decision by Pelosi to back an impeachment inquiry stems from a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, in which the US president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The full story stretches back five years, for that timeline see this analysis by The Washington Post. Axios also has this who’s who of the impeachment inquiry.
With fire and fury. The President has attacked his critics on Twitter and accused whistleblowers and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of committing treason.
His re-election campaign has turned impeachment into a fundraising bonanza, raising millions of dollars to start running ads defending the President. History has shown that when Trump feels cornered, he comes out swinging. Expect peak Trump while this process escalates.
All about the base
Trump will use the impeachment inquiry to rile up his base. Trump supporters will be angered by an attempt to remove the President and even more committed to fighting for his reelection. Progressives meanwhile are finally getting what they’ve been pushing for since Democrats won back the House in 2018.
Where impeachment could greatly impact the race is in the suburbs, where voters elected moderate Democrats in 2018 for talking about issues they care about – like healthcare. Now, Democrats have to go back and defend impeachment of the President. Polling has shown support for impeachment rising but will that hold if the process drags on?
History as a guide
In 1999, President Clinton survived the Senate vote, but he also had a strong economy. As argued before, it is the economy that we will be the determining factor in 2020. If impeachment is seen as a distraction from a strong US economy, Democrats will pay the price at the ballot box.
Measurement and evaluation