Impeachment 101: How the political process actually works

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ByCelia Darrough

This week's impeachment hearings regarding President Trump and his potential wrongdoing with Ukraine might make it feel like the process has been going on for ages, but it's still just the beginning. After the House hearings, there's a long list of boxes Congress has to check to impeach Trump and ultimately remove him from the Oval Office.

Trump is accused of withholding aid from Ukraine unless the country helped him provide damaging information on former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running to become the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explicitly accused Trump of bribery, which is an impeachable offense, saying that "the president abused his power and violated his oath by threatening to withhold military aid and a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation into his political rival."

Another way to put this is "quid pro quo," defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "something given or received for something else." You may have heard this term, at the very least, during Trump's denials, which he read from handwritten notes that said "I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo."

The whole point of the impeachment process is to determine if, in fact, there was any wrongdoing. The most basic way to explain the presidential impeachment process is this: The House holds hearings and then votes whether or not to impeach. If they vote yes, then the Senate has a trial and votes whether or not to remove the president from office.

One way to think of it is as if the House is a grand jury deciding whether to indict the president, and the Senate is a jury deciding whether to convict him. But there are nuances — and potential bumps along the road — that make this process a little less than straightforward.

The House

The House of Representatives is charged with deciding whether or not to impeach the president. To make this decision, members of the House are holding both closed-door and public hearings as part of the impeachment inquiry.

The current public hearings are being held by the House Intelligence Committee. This is a bit unusual; previous impeachment hearings have generally been conducted through the House Judiciary Committee, says Frank O. Bowman, III, a law professor at the University of Missouri and author of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.

Once enough evidence is gathered, the committee will send their case to the House Judiciary Committee, which will then decide what, if any, articles of impeachment to bring to the entirety of the House. They may hold oral arguments about which articles should be adopted, and then the members of the House — which currently has a Democratic majority — will hold a floor vote on the articles of impeachment. There will likely be a debate, Bowman says, and then a majority of members must vote that there is enough evidence to warrant impeachment.

If that happens, then Trump will be officially impeached, and the process will move to the Senate.

The Senate

The way the process then works in the Senate looks more like a criminal trial. Senators must determine if Trump committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" and should therefore be removed from office entirely.

But exactly what a trial would look like is "unclear," Bowman says. "The Senate has pretty much complete control over how that works."

There could be live testimony from witnesses, or there could simply be oral arguments, but the Senate gets to decide that. The only concrete rules, Bowman points out, are that the Senate must stay in session for six days a week, and senators are obligated to be present (which might frustrate the senators who are Democrats and want to be out campaigning for president).

Even if testimony is heard, it's unlikely that Trump would testify. "He’s offered to answer written questions, but who knows if he means that, and it's probably not helpful," says Kimberly Wehle, a professor at Baltimore Law School and author of How to Read the Constitution — and Why. "He’s going to deny everything, and I don't know how meaningful that would be."

To remove a president from office, a two-thirds majority of the Senate — 67 senators — must vote to do so. That's unlikely, considering there are 53 Republicans and 45 Democrats currently in the Senate, with two more who caucus with Democrats. The impeachment process is inherently political, Bowman says, and not actually like a regular criminal trial.

"It's close to impossible that there’s going to be removal in the Senate, politically," Wehle agrees.

However, Wehle notes that it's possible a trial might not even happen at all. With a Republican majority in the Senate and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader, "they could move to dismiss the indictment and then not even go to trial," Wehle says. "That’s conceivable."

What comes after

Let's ignore the likelihood of both impeachment and removal from office for a moment. If Trump were to be impeached by the House and removed by the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence would then be sworn in as president. However, this depends on whether people in power comply with the rule of law, Wehle points out. Trump could, potentially, refuse the results.

"There's nothing with this particular president that should surprise us if he refused to leave office," Wehle says. "And the question is, how do you enforce a steady hand-off of authority? I don't know."

When it comes to this process, Wehle wants people in the United States to know that this isn't personal to Trump, but that if potential wrongdoing goes unchecked, the country will slip from a democracy into something more like an autocracy.

"In order to have individual liberties, we have to have an accountable presidency for future generations," she says, noting that one day Republicans might be concerned about the president in power but they'll have established a system that doesn't respect the checks and balances process. "If you create an office of an unaccountable president, it’ll be too late to rein in the power."

But back in reality, where Trump is unlikely to be removed from office by the majority Republican Senate, Bowman points out that Trump will actually most likely benefit from the fact that the impeachment process is not based in regular trial rules. "The truth is, if this were that kind of process, this case would be basically over. It’s a slam dunk," he says. "If the charge was abuse of power, which is a traditionally impeachable high crime misdemeanor, the jury convicts him before he walks out of the box."

"At the end of the day," Bowman adds, "the only thing that is going to save Trump from removal is that this is a political process."