Impeachment is in the air. If you follow politics, watch TV or use Twitter, you’ve probably heard the word "impeachment" used over and over again with growing urgency this week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to calls by fellow Democrats Tuesday by announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The decision came after criticism of the president mounted based on allegations that he pressured Ukraine's leader to investigate the family of political rival Joe Biden at the same time that he was withholding millions in aid from the Eastern European nation.
Late Monday, an influential group of freshmen Democrats who served in the military and national security before winning office said Trump's actions cut to the core of the country's defenses.
At issue is a summer phone call with Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskiy, in which Trump is said to have pushed for investigations into Biden. In the days before that call, Trump ordered the aid to Ukraine frozen, according to reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong and has denied that any requests for help in procuring damaging information about Biden were tied to the aid freeze. He said Tuesday that he froze the aid to fight corruption and to urge European nations to contribute in helping out Ukraine.
Nevertheless, as of Wednesday morning, 211 House Democrats (out of a 235-member caucus), as well as Independent Justin Amash, said they now back some type of impeachment action against Trump. Several other Democratic holdouts said they supported the investigation, but stopped short of using the word impeachment inquiry.
So what does all this actually mean? Check below for our impeachment FAQ.
What is impeachment?
In their quest to promote democracy and protect against concentrated power, the founders of the United States wrote several checks and balances into the constitution. Perhaps the greatest check against the president is impeachment, which essentially means charging him/her with a crime. That crime can include “Treason, Bribery, high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” according to Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution.
Who holds the power to impeach?
The legislative branch holds the key check against the executive branch. In other words, it’s up to Congress to impeach the president.
First, the U.S. House of Representatives must vote, with a simple majority, to impeach and then the Senate serves as the court for impeachment trials.
Any House member can introduce impeachment resolutions like ordinary bills, or the House could initiate proceedings by passing a resolution authorizing an inquiry.
The House Judiciary Committee holds jurisdiction over impeachments and its members must decide whether to move forward with an impeachment proceeding. If they do, the House appoints members to act as representatives for the chamber in the subsequent Senate trial. These representatives serve as prosecutors while the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice — Justice John Roberts in this case — presides over the legal proceedings. The Senate must vote with a ⅔ majority to impeach.
What does this all have to do with Trump?
The sudden rush of activity shows the extent to which Trump's call to Ukraine’s leader, and his subsequent comments about the conversation, are raising further questions about whether the president improperly used his office to pressure another country as a way of helping his own reelection prospects.
"These allegations are stunning, both in the national security threat they pose and the potential corruption they represent," wrote the seven freshmen, who include a former Navy pilot, soldiers, officers and intelligence analysts.The lawmakers include Reps. Gil Cisneros of California, Jason Crow of Colorado, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.
"These new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect. We must preserve the checks and balances envisioned by the Founders and restore the trust of the American people in our government. And that is what we intend to do,” the lawmakers wrote.
What presidents have been impeached?
Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 during a bitter post-Civil War rivalry between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans bristled when Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from the cabinet. They argued that Stanton had been appointed by Congress and, according to The Tenure of Office Act, the president does not have the power to dismiss appointed officials without the consent of Congress. Historians generally agree, however, that Johnson was impeached because he wanted to offer amnesty to Southern states that pledged allegiance to the Union. Republicans at the time wanted to set up military governments and punish territories that tried to secede.
Despite the bad blood, Johnson was ultimately acquitted.
Bill Clinton was also acquitted in 1999 after being impeached one year earlier. He was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice after lying about having an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinksy. The extremely public proceedings lasted more than a year and were filled with lurid details about their sexual encounters.
Richard Nixon came close to being impeached over the Watergate scandal in 1972, but he resigned from office before the House could vote to impeach.
How long do impeachment proceedings last?
If the Clinton proceedings were any indication, an impeachment trial can last several months. But ultimately, it depends on the Senate. Theoretically, the Senate can vote with a super majority to dismiss the charges against a president before even hearing them out. There is no constitutional mandate for the Senate to hold an impeachment trial. In this case, it's important to note that Democrats hold the majority in the House while Republicans are the majority in the Senate, making a stalemate possible.
What happens if a president is found guilty of the charges against him/her?
If convicted, the president would be removed from office and the vice president would assume executive authority.