The impeachment of Donald Trump: Here's how it works — assuming anything still works

Will Trump be removed from office? Well, it's never happened. But here's the procedure, and the likely charges

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 21, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)

Now that the House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, it’s time to understand how this process will actually work. It has only played out in full twice before in American history, 130 years apart. What does it take to impeach a president and remove him or her from office? How many times has a president faced this type of crisis? What are the undisputed facts (if any) regarding Trump’s situation?

  • Impeachment is not the same thing as removing a president from office.

The term “impeachment” is commonly used interchangeably with “removal” as regards a president, but this is not accurate. When a president is impeached, that refers to the constitutional process wherein a majority of members of the House decides that the president has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” serious enough to warrant removal from office. If the House impeaches the president, the Senate then holds a trial — with the chief justice of the Supreme Court as presiding judge — to determine whether he or she should be convicted. While only a simple majority is necessary for impeachment, a two-thirds majority is necessary to convict a president in the Senate.

What does this mean for Trump’s prospects? It’s impossible to predict with certainty how either chamber will vote, but we know the partisan breakdown. Right now there are 234 Democrats, 197 Republicans, one independent and three vacant seats in the House of Representatives. In the Senate there are 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents. In both chambers the independents are expected to oppose Trump on this issue: In the Senate, those are Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who both caucus with Democrats; the lone independent in the House is Justin Amash of Michigan, who called for Trump’s impeachment in May and quit the Republican Party. It would take 67 votes in the Senate to convict Trump (assuming all senators are present), meaning at least 20 Republicans would have to find him guilty. That’s not impossible, but it’s difficult to imagine.

  • The primary cause of impeachment involves Trump’s effort to persuade the Ukrainian government to dig dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Trump also wanted Ukraine to help support an elaborate conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In a White House press conference on Friday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said that the president engages in “quid pro quo” with other nations all the time for political purposes and that people should “get over it” because “there’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” (Mulvaney tried to walk this back later, but he said what he said.)

To be fair, Mulvaney was specifically discussing Trump's effort to convince Ukraianian President Volodomyr Zelensky to obtain (or fabricate) evidence that a Democratic National Committee campaign server containing Clinton’s missing emails was in that country. There’s no evidence this is true and the premise is completely illogical.

Yet the issue in fact goes beyond Clinton’s missing emails. According to the partial transcript of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky (the accuracy of which has not been disputed), the president asked Zelensky to investigate whether Joe Biden’s son Hunter had engaged in corrupt activity while working for the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, and whether the former vice president had meddled in Ukrainian affairs to protect his son. 

Trump clearly lumped his request about the supposedly missing server with his request for dirt on Hunter Biden. He also publicly asked China to help him obtain dirt on Hunter Biden’s business dealings, telling reporters earlier this month, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

On both occasions there were implied threats: Trump apparently withheld $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which had been authorized by Congress, and said about his request to China, “If they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”

Revelations about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky prompted the impeachment inquiry, although initially the focus was on his request for foreign aid in a political campaign. A number of witnesses have now testified before the House that Trump did indeed demand a quid pro quo, despite White House denials. Mulvaney may have deliberately conceded this as regards the imaginary DNC server but not on the Biden request, in hopes of deflecting or defeating the impeachment inquiry.

  • There is no evidence that Hunter Biden did anything illegal in Ukraine or China.

No doubt it’s ethically questionable for the relatives of powerful American leaders to do foreign business, based largely on their last names. (One could ask Trump’s children about that.) But there is no indication that Hunter Biden did anything illegal in China or Ukraine. As for the Ukrainian prosecutor Joe Biden got fired, that was the result of an international campaign to force Ukrainian officials to combat corruption, and doesn’t appear to have any relationship to Hunter Biden or Burisma. 

Hunter Biden no longer sits on the board of Burisma, and announced last week he would step down from his role on the board of a management company for a private equity fund connected to the Chinese government.

  • All roads lead to Russia.

This may now seem like distant history, but former special counsel Robert Mueller released a report earlier this year which established that members of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had eagerly collaborated with various agents of the Russian government in hopes of digging dirt on Hillary Clinton. Much as Trump publicly called for China to investigate the Bidens earlier this month, he did the same thing during a July 2016 press conference when he called for Russia to help him find damning information about Clinton.

There are three important points here: First, Trump has a clear pattern of illegal or unethical campaign activity; second, he escaped impeached over the Mueller report largely because Democrats feared public weariness, not because there was any lack of evidence against him — Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said at the time impeachment wasn’t “worth it” — and third, Trump’s foreign policy has had an inexplicable pro-Russia bent throughout his presidency. So there are bigger stakes here than simply whether or not the president broke the law.

Speaking to Salon earlier this year about Trump’s Russia policy, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul described “this curious condition, unlike any other policy I can remember of any other administration, whereby the administration itself, the entire government, had one set of policies — I think they're pretty good policies towards Russia by the way, a lot of continuity with the Obama administration in terms of trying to detain, contain and deter Putin — but there's been one person in the government that disagreed with that, and he happens to be the president of the United States.” 

During a White House meeting with Trump earlier this week, Nancy Pelosi reportedly told the president that, in his administration, “all roads lead to Putin.”

  • Three other presidents have faced serious threats of impeachment, although none was forcibly removed from office. 

American politics is often vitriolic, and many presidents have faced critics who have claimed they committed impeachable offenses. But on only three occasions has the threat of impeachment been serious. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached for a number of alleged offenses, most of them focused on violating the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval for cabinet dismissals (the consensus among constitutional scholars today is that the law was unconstitutional). Because the law was widely viewed as a trap created by a hostile Congress to ensnare and thereby remove an unpopular president, Johnson avoided conviction by one vote in the Senate. It helped that the trial was held during an election year when the Republican nominee, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, was widely perceived as likely to win. That could foreshadow how electoral politics might impact a Trump impeachment if his trial is held next year.

Richard Nixon was never technically impeached, but he would almost certainly been both impeached and convicted had he not resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. As with Trump, Nixon’s crimes were motivated by a desire to damage a Democratic opponent’s presidential campaign and ensure his own re-election. In June 1972, Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex in Washington were burglarized, likely in hopes of material on Sen. George McGovern, Nixon’s Democratic opponent that year.

Nixon denied any knowledge of or involvement in the break-in, but White House tapes revealed he was involved in an attempted cover-up. Years later it was discovered that Nixon had also sabotaged a possible peace deal that could have ended the Vietnam War in an effort to damage  his 1968 opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Then there was Bill Clinton, who was impeached in 1998 on articles accusing him of obstructing justice and committing perjury. Although the proximate issue was Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against Clinton, all anyone remembers about the case is Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom Clinton had an extramarital affair, which he denied under oath. Clinton was impeached by the House, which was then under Republican control, but easily acquitted in the Senate. A similar outcome for Trump is entirely possible.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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