Impeachment talk is getting louder in Washington. For the first time, President Donald Trump has been implicated -- though not charged -- in a criminal act, the payment of hush money to two women before the 2016 election. The developments spur fresh questions about whether a U.S. president can be indicted while in office. They also add fuel to what had been a limited push among congressional Democrats to try to impeach Trump and remove him from office. The Republicans who control Congress, and even most Democrats and their leaders, haven’t been ready to suggest that Trump committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would warrant impeachment. That may be changing, especially with federal elections coming in November.
1. Will Trump be impeached?
It’s too early to say. Trump’s fellow Republicans now hold the majority in the House of Representatives, where articles of impeachment originate, but Democrats could win enough seats in November to take control. And much depends on whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the criminal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, chooses to submit a written report to Congress alleging misdeeds by Trump.
2. Why is impeachment talk getting louder?
Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty on Aug. 21 to tax evasion, making false statements to a bank and making illegal campaign contributions -- the latter at the behest of Trump when he was a presidential candidate. Even before that, a handful of Democrats in the House of Representatives had proposed impeachment resolutions alleging that Trump committed offenses warranting removal from office, including obstructing justice, accepting what’s known as emoluments, sowing racial discord and undermining the federal judiciary. But introducing such resolutions is easy; getting a majority to support them is the challenge. In January, when one such resolution reached the House floor, it was defeated 355 to 66.
3. Why is November’s election so important?
At the moment, Trump’s fellow Republicans control both the House and the Senate and therefore can stand in the way of any move to impeach. November’s midterm elections could end the Republican Party’s monopoly control over the White House and both houses of Congress. All 435 House of Representatives seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats are being contested. At the moment, Republicans hold a 236-to-193 edge in the House and a 51-to-49 advantage in the Senate.
4. Are Democrats pledging to impeach Trump if they win?
Not yet at least. Until now, Democratic leaders have mostly steered way from impeachment talk, reasoning that many voters aren’t eager to see a repeat of the political warfare that raged 20 years ago when Republicans sought to remove President Bill Clinton. The pro-impeach movement is largely driven for now by party activists outside Congress, like billionaire Tom Steyer.
5. What are impeachable offenses?
Congress decides. The U.S. Constitution says the president -- along with the vice president and “all civil officers,” which has been construed to include judges and members of a president’s cabinet -- “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” As Congress has defined it through the years, the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” includes exceeding or abusing the powers of the presidency, or misusing the office for improper purpose or gain.
6. What about offenses committed before becoming president?
They might normally be considered outside the purview of impeachment. But what Trump is accused of -- arranging to pay money to keep unflattering information from the public while campaigning for the presidency -- may be “precisely the sort of offense that the drafters of the Constitution meant to cover in granting Congress the power to impeach and remove a president,” Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times.
7. How exactly does impeachement work?
House lawmakers can introduce impeachment resolutions like ordinary legislation, or the entire House can vote to authorize an inquiry into whether impeachment is warranted. Either way, the matter then would normally go to the House Judiciary Committee, which can choose to hold hearings and/or vote to send one or more articles of impeachment -- formal written charges -- to the full House. Any article approved by a majority of the House goes to the Senate.
8. What happens in the Senate?
In one of the more unusual spectacles in American politics, the 100 members of the Senate become the jury in a trial, with some members of the House functioning as prosecutors and the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding (if the accused is the president). Witnesses are called, and evidence submitted, with House impeachment managers and counsel for the accused giving opening and closing statements. If two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, vote to convict, the official is ordered removed from office.
9. How often has this happened?
The House has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times, according to its historian’s office, and voted to impeach 15 federal judges, one senator, one cabinet secretary and two presidents -- Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Eight judges were convicted and removed from office.
10. How many presidents have been removed by impeachment?
Technically speaking, none. Johnson, impeached by the House for firing the secretary of war, survived because the Senate fell just one vote short of a two-thirds majority to remove him. Fifty senators voted to remove Clinton for obstruction of justice, and 45 voted to remove him for perjury, also shy of the two-thirds majority. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 when it became clear he would be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee had approved three articles of impeachment accusing him of obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress, for his role in covering up the politically motivated break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate office building.
11. What would happen if Trump were removed from office?
Vice President Mike Pence would automatically be elevated to the presidency. He would then appoint a vice president, subject to a majority vote in both houses of Congress. In this very hypothetical scenario, a President Pence could himself run twice for re-election, in 2020 and 2024, were he to succeed Trump after Jan. 20, 2019, or halfway through Trump’s term. Oh, and there’s this: Unless the Senate voted separately to disqualify Trump from public office, he could, legally, run again.
--With assistance from Anne Cronin and Bob Van Voris.
To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at email@example.com, Lisa Beyer, Justin Blum
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