House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House of Representatives will begin a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Here’s what you need to know about the process.
But first, let’s get a common misconception out of the way: Impeachment does not refer to the removal of a president. Rather, it’s the process of investigating conduct and bringing charges — which the U.S. constitution limits to “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” — against a president or other government official. Similar to an indictment issued against a criminal defendant in court, where the defendant must stand trial and be convicted or acquitted, a president who has been impeached by the House must be convicted by the senate before they are removed from office.
Over the coming weeks and months, the House will begin investigating whether the president engaged in conduct that falls under the standards outlined by the constitution. The six House committees — Judiciary, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Financial Services, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs — that are already investigating Trump over various issues will continue their investigations “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” as Pelosi said in her announcement.
Eventually, according to two unnamed officials cited by the New York Times, the committees’ strongest findings will be presented to the Judiciary Committee, which will make a final determination on whether there is sufficient evidence to present articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote. If that happens, at least one article will need to receive a majority vote in the Democrat-controlled House for the president to considered to be impeached.
At that point, proceedings would move to the senate for a trial overseen by John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. But before critics of the president get too excited, the odds of Trump being removed from office are likely very slim, as two-thirds of the senate must vote to convict the president. In the current Republican-controlled senate, that means every senate Democrat and 20 Republicans would need to vote in favor of a conviction to reach that threshold.
It’s not unusual in U.S. history for an impeached president to be acquitted by the senate. Only two presidents — Andrew Johnson in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — have ever been impeached, and both were ultimately acquitted by the senate and finished out their terms as president. The only other president to face an impeachment inquiry, Richard Nixon, resigned before an impeachment vote could be held.
For now, the exact time frame of the impeachment inquiry is difficult to predict. The House investigations could see lengthy delays if Trump challenges the inquiry in court, which wouldn’t be a surprising move given that he’s already sued to block congressional subpoenas of his tax returns.
But as Trump has been under investigation since the Democrats took over the House at the beginning of this year, the inquiries have something of a head start. And the transition to formal impeachment inquiries could provide the House with more tools to obtain information, as Vox noted.
As for this week, the acting director of national intelligence has been given until Thursday to release the still-classified whistleblower complaint that Trump had sought to use foreign power for his own political gain during a phone call with Ukraine’s president. The complaint was largely the impetus behind Pelosi’s decision to announce the impeachment inquiry this week, and whether or not the acting director complies with the demand to turn over the complaint is just the beginning of what’s to come.