Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi may have officially opened an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Tuesday, but the road to actually kicking him out of the White House is long, surprisingly uncharted, and full of political hurdles.
“The actions of the Trump presidency revealed a dishonorable fact of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said in an address Tuesday. “The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”
When a president commits what the Constitution calls “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” Congress may vote to strip him of his office. That may sound simple enough, but like everything else in Washington, impeachment can get complicated and confusing — fast. And, just a reminder: Impeachment is not the same thing as removal from office. It’s just a step in that direction.
Here’s how it all works.
The House can investigate
On Tuesday, Pelosi said the six House committees that were already investigating Trump should continue to do so “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.” If they uncover evidence that Trump did, indeed, commit an offense that they consider to be worthy of impeachment, they can send those findings to the Judiciary Committee.
This impeachment inquiry was spurred by the allegations that Trump froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and asked its president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. On Wednesday, the White House released a rough transcript of a call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump urged Zelensky to “look into” the matter.
Even if all of the allegations are true, there’s no hard or fast answer as to whether they warrant impeachment — a political, not criminal, process. “High crimes and misdemeanors” remains a nebulous term, though it’s generally understood to mean an abuse of power. Years before Richard Nixon’s resignation made him president, then–congressman Gerald Ford famously proclaimed, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
Given that Democrats currently control the House, that’s not a great sign for Team Trump.
The House can impeach
The Judiciary Committee can then vote on whether to move forward with that evidence and present them to the full House for another vote. The House just needs a simple majority — 218 “yes” votes — to formally impeach the president. At last count, 209 members of the House had come out in support of the inquiry, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d vote to impeach Trump. It’s unlikely that Pelosi will bring it to the floor if she doesn’t believe she has all 218 votes.
The Senate can hold a trial
After the House votes, the action heads to the Senate, where senators act as a jury in a trial presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In this case, that would be Justice John Roberts.
While there are rules from the 19th century about how the Senate will conduct the trial, the Senate is largely free to rewrite those guidelines. According to a Congressional Research Service report, “In modern practice the Senate has agreed to alternative or supplemental procedures both for judicial impeachment trials and the impeachment trial of President Clinton." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may also try to hold up the proceedings, given his track record with Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination.
Still, traditionally, House members can make their case with witnesses and evidence, while the president can enlist defense lawyers to do the same.
After the trial, the Senate votes on whether to “convict” the president. Unlike in the House, the Senate needs at least a two-thirds majority to remove him from office. And if Trump is removed, Vice President Mike Pence would succeed him.
So, has a president ever been impeached?
Yes. But no president has ever been forced to leave the White House over it.
Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached by the House, in 1868, when Republicans got fed up with his efforts to undercut Reconstruction. Bill Clinton became the second, in 1998; after an investigation into his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the Republican-controlled House voted that he had committed perjury before a grand jury and obstructed justice.
Both men, however, were ultimately acquitted by the Senate.
Thanks to Watergate, Richard Nixon was also likely on his way to impeachment and removal. But he resigned in 1974 before that process could be completed.
Cover: Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., reads a newspaper with the headline "House Launches Impeachment Inquiry" as he arrives for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on assault weapons on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)