Shortcuts / 18 December 2019


We’ll tell you what it means, what the process is, when it’s happened before and why it’s happening to Donald Trump.

Why are we talking about this?
In late September 2019, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives in the US Congress announced they would launch an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in response to accusations he pressured Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelensky to investigate his potential 2020 presidential election rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

What is impeachment?
To start with – it’s not shorthand for the removal of a president from office.

What it is – a step in a long process to have them removed if enough lawmakers vote to say that they committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” A president is impeached if a majority of House members support it via a vote.

But it doesn’t end there. The matter then goes to the US Senate where a trial is held. Following a trial, a vote is taken. Two-thirds of Senators must support the removal of the president from office for that to happen. 

So sticking to the impeachment process in the House – what’s the process?
Step one – an investigation by the committees of the House. That includes a review of the accusations and the evidence. Witness testimony can be taken. And then a recommendation is made by the committee to House members to either drop the matter or to proceed. 

Step two – if the committee/s recommend moving ahead, the claims against the president are split into ‘articles of impeachment’ that detail each claim of wrongdoing. 

Step three – House members vote on those articles. And if at least one gets a majority vote, the president is impeached. If we were to translate that into Australian criminal procedural talk – a charge is laid against the accused. 

And then what?
Proceedings then move to the Senate, which is to hold a trial overseen by the Chief Justice of the United States. A team of House members take the role of prosecutors. The president has defense lawyers. The Senate serves as the jury.

If at least two-thirds of the senators find the president guilty, he/she is removed, and the vice president takes over as president. There is no appeal.

Has a president ever been removed from office in this way?

But presidents have been impeached in the past…
Yes. Presidents Bill Clinton (president from 1993 to 2001) and Andrew Johnson (president from 1865 to 1869) were impeached by the House. 

Tell me about Clinton’s impeachment…
The articles of impeachment against Clinton were that he lied under oath and tried to obstruct justice “regarding the Paula Jones case and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.” The story relating to Lewinsky is fairly widely known. Jones was a former Arkansas state employee who sued Clinton for sexual harassment from an incident that happened before he was president.  

Clinton went on to serve out his full second term as President, leaving office in January 2001 with close to his highest-ever approval ratings.

And Johnson’s impeachment?
There were 11 articles of impeachment leveled at Johnson based around concerns that he’s inappropriately removed the Secretary of War from his job. The House impeached him, but in the Senate, the vote fell short by just one vote to remove him from office. 

And what about Nixon and GW Bush?
An impeachment investigation was launched into Richard Nixon (president from 1969 to 1974) over allegations relating to the Watergate scandal. Three articles of impeachment were formally levelled at Nixon – obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. He resigned before the House was able to vote on impeachment. 

As for George W Bush, moves to start the process were sent to a House Committee where no further action was taken. The allegations against him include a shopping list of items from his time in office. Many commentators don’t even count this as a serious effort for impeachment. 

Which takes us to Donald Trump…
Indeed it does. So, they’re up to the stage where the House committees are investigating. 

As a starting point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said his encouragement to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner in the 2020 presidential election warranted the investigation. 

She called his actions a “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said. 

Where those investigations land and what articles of impeachment they come forward with – if any – remain to the seen. 

And what’s the political landscape?
Donald Trump is a Republican. 

The House is controlled by the Democrats. Of 435 seats, the Dems have 235, Reps 198, 1 independent and 1 vacant

The Senate is controlled by the Republicans. Of 100 seats Reps have 53, Dems 45 and 2 independent. 

There is a presidential election scheduled for November 2020 with the next term of government kicking off in January 2021.

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