If you are wondering what is actually happening in Washington right now, you are not alone. It’s a dizzying mix of partisan politics, arcane procedure, cable TV chatter and breathless half-truths.
So let’s try to break through the fog, and get down to some basic questions and answers.
What does it mean to be impeached?
Impeachment is the process by which one of three coequal branches of the federal government — the legislative branch (i.e., Congress) — can investigate whether officers of the two other branches — the executive branch (i.e., the president and all employees of his administration) and the judicial branch (i.e., federal judges) — should be removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as spelled out in Article 2, section 4 of the U.S. Constitution.
The American founders who wrote the Constitution included impeachment in the governing document because they feared that the president might grow too powerful, and they wanted Congress — which is more accountable to the people — to have the ability to keep the power of the presidency in check.
If Congress impeaches President Trump, is he removed from office?
No. If Trump is impeached by a vote in the House of Representatives, that would happen probably sometime in December. But if a president is impeached, that’s only the first step in removing him from office. The Senate, the upper chamber of Congress, then takes the impeachment under advisement and holds a trial to decide whether it believes the president is guilty of the charges brought against him by the House.
Think of it as a criminal process: The House of Representatives is a grand jury, and its vote on impeachment is really more like an indictment. The Senate then becomes a courtroom, and each of the 100 senators is a juror.
In this context, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is playing the role of investigator and prosecutor. He is overseeing the process of interviewing witnesses, collecting evidence and compiling a case against the president.
Wasn’t Trump impeached this week?
No, that was a procedural vote in the House. Basically, Democrats used it to spell out the rules for what’s about to happen in the process. But it was also a political move to try to defuse criticisms from Republicans that Democrats were pursuing an impeachment inquiry without support from the full House, as had happened in the past.
What’s about to happen?
Public hearings. Possibly very soon after the House comes back to Washington after next week’s recess, a number of witnesses will give testimony and then answer questions from Democrats and Republicans. We don’t know yet who the witnesses will be, but we know they’ll be drawn from among the people who have been deposed by Schiff.
Who holds those hearings?
The House Intelligence Committee, which Schiff chairs, will hold the first hearings. And then the House Judiciary Committee will hold some.
Here’s why: Schiff is going to issue a report summarizing his findings once he has finished his depositions, document collection and public hearings. In that sense, he’s playing a role similar to the one played by Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel in the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Starr conducted private interviews, did not release transcripts and then delivered a report to Congress.
The Judiciary Committee will then take Schiff’s report and hold its own hearings, and this is when Trump’s lawyers will be able to make their case. They can respond to evidence, call their own witnesses and request evidence. Republicans have complained that the president’s team can’t call whoever it wants as witnesses, but has to get approval from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.
The Judiciary Committee will then write up whatever specific charges will be brought against the president, which are called articles of impeachment.
This is a variation of how impeachment inquiries worked in 1974 and 1998. In 1974, when the House moved toward impeaching President Richard Nixon, the Judiciary Committee was the investigative body, and also issued articles of impeachment — the indictment — that were presented to the full House for a vote. That meant the panel functioned essentially as a grand jury. In 1998, Starr did the investigation, and the Judiciary Committee held a few hearings before drafting the articles of impeachment.
What happens in the Senate?
Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the trial, as dictated by the Constitution. You can read here about the role he’s likely to play.
The House will designate “managers” from among its ranks to make the case against the president. Schiff, a former prosecutor, is almost certain to be the lead manager for the House.
Trump will have his own team of lawyers to respond to the case, the two sides will make arguments and then the Senate will hold a vote. A president can’t be removed just by a 51-vote majority. It has to be a supermajority: 67 out of 100 senators. And Republicans make up 53 of the 100 members of the Senate. So it’s pretty unlikely at this point that Trump would be removed.
We don’t know how long this will take. The Senate will have to agree on how much time each side gets to make its arguments, whether witnesses can be called and other matters. But Republicans probably don’t want it to drag on and neither do Democrats, since a bunch of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are senators and have to be in Washington for the trial, and they have their first primary contest in Iowa on Feb. 3.
Has a president ever been removed by Congress?
No. Nixon was likely to be impeached by the House and removed by the Senate in 1974, but it never got that far because he resigned. The other two presidents who were actually impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Clinton in 1998, were found not guilty by the Senate.
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