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How impeachment works

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The full House voted to impeach President Trump on Wednesday. Its action followed a vote by a House committee recommending two grounds for impeachment, based on public testimony in that committee and one other.

The action can be hard to follow, so if you’re having trouble keeping track of what’s happened so far, we break down the process, and where things stand.

Trump Impeachment
A copy of the U.S. Constitution.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

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What is the origin of impeachment?

The framers of the Constitution included a provision for impeaching a president or other federal officials, including judges. They were inspired by a process from British constitutional history that dated to the 14th century, as a way for Parliament to hold the king’s ministers accountable for their actions, according to the House of Representatives.

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What's impeachable?
The writers of the Constitution didn’t want to tightly define high crimes and misdemeanors but gave broad examples of what it should include. Legal experts describe it as an offense against the public trust at large, not necessarily a crime defined by law.

James Madison wrote in 1787 that there had to be a way to defend against “incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief executive” because the president might “pervert his administration” or “betray his trust to foreign powers.” Alexander Hamilton described the standard in 1788 as “abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Legal experts also stress that this punishment was not intended to be used when Congress disagrees with the president’s policy decisions. (This is why Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have refused to bring articles of impeachment against Trump for policies they don’t like, such as family detention at the southern border.

Read more from Sarah D. Wire: Lawmakers are studying ‘what’s impeachable.’ Do you know?

The clause in the Constitution — Article II, section 4, says:

“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

What qualifies as an impeachable offense? That is up to the lawmakers considering impeachment at any given time.

In the current proceedings, at issue is whether Trump abused his power by withholding aid from Ukraine until the country’s president agreed to investigate Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and specifically the Ukrainian company Biden’s son had worked for. Also at issue: whether he obstructed Congress by refusing to cooperate with the investigation, including by blocking administration officials from testifying and federal agencies from providing documents.

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How does Congress remove someone who holds office?

Here’s an overview:

The House of Representatives votes to impeach — that is, to charge an official with wrongdoing.

The Senate holds a trial to consider the articles of impeachment.

The Senate votes on whether to remove the official from power. (In some cases, they can also disqualify someone from holding a future office.)

Any fines or imprisonment for crimes committed while in office are left to civil courts.

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That’s a birds-eye view, but there are several steps to get through each phase of the process.

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Impeachment and removal: A step-by-step guide

First, as part of its oversight and investigative responsibilities, the House considers whether to bring impeachment charges against federal officials.

Individual members of the House can introduce impeachment resolutions or the House can start the process by passing a resolution that authorizes an inquiry.

The current impeachment process was kicked off after Speaker Nancy Pelosi authorized an inquiry.

The inquiry started with closed-door testimony, later made public, by three witnesses:

  • William B. Taylor Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine
  • George P. Kent, State Department official for European and Eurasian affairs
  • Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

That was followed by two days of public hearings with the three witnesses.

The committee decides whether to write up articles of impeachment

The House Judiciary Committee heard from four law professors in a public hearing:

  • Jonathan Turley, George Washington University Law School
  • Noah Feldman, Harvard University
  • Pamela Karlan, Stanford University
  • Michael Gerhardt, University of North Carolina

It also considered evidence against Trump from the House Intelligence Committee and approved two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

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The committee then votes on whether to send it to the full House

The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to send the articles of impeachment to the House on Friday, Dec. 13, following 14 hours of debate.

If the committee votes in favor, the full House of Representatives votes on impeachment

That’s where we are now: The Democratic-led House voted to impeach the president.

The House has impeached President Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The House charged Trump with committing high crimes and misdemeanors, the constitutional standard needed to warrant his removal from office.

Managers are appointed

Once the articles are approved, the House appoints members to manage its case in the Senate trial.

The managers act as prosecutors in the Senate and are usually members of the Judiciary Committee. The number of managers has varied, but in past impeachment trials the number has typically been an odd one.

The Senate conducts a trial

The Senate trial is expected to begin in January. Republicans, who are the majority, are determined to make it a quick trial — perhaps one to two weeks, compared with the five-week trial of President Clinton in 1999 that ended in his acquittal.

But as Laura King writes, how it will work is still very uncertain.

Once the trial starts, both House Democrats and the president’s lawyers are expected to present their cases.

The Senate could decide to continue the trial by calling witnesses, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected a proposal from Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to call witnesses.

The Senate votes

To remove the president from office, the Senate must vote by a two-thirds majority to do so. In a Republican-controlled Senate, that is unlikely.

So what are the consequences? As Chris Megerian writes: “The ultimate impact of the impeachment saga awaits next year’s election results and, eventually, the verdict of historians. For now, national polls show public opinion has barely budged in either direction, with Americans divided down the middle, mainly by party.”

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Frequently asked questions

What new information could come out of the Senate trial?

Little, if any, given Republicans’ strategy to quickly dispense with the articles. However, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview: “Senators have the power to vote to require production of all the documents that the administration has been withholding. And I think it will be very hard for them to take the position that they don’t want to see the evidence.”

Who has been impeached?

The House has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times in its history, but has only impeached 19 people: two presidents, 15 federal judges, one senator and one Cabinet member.

Only eight of those — all federal judges — were convicted by the Senate and removed from office.

Trump joins a small group of fellow presidents now that he’s the subject of an official impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives. Only three of his predecessors underwent similar proceedings: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who were acquitted, and Richard Nixon, who resigned.


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Times Staff