Trump impeachment FAQ: What you need to know

For the first time in over two decades, the United States has been thrust into an impeachment drama, this one involving President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine’s government. The process has often been confusing or difficult to follow. And with the Constitution murky on the specific roadmap that impeachment must follow, and with bad actors happy to propagate information that isn’t accurate, the entire process has left many Americans scratching their heads. 

Here’s a list of answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about impeachment.

Why was President Trump impeached?

The House of Representatives voted Thursday to approve two articles of impeachment against President Trump, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his efforts to procure Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and alleged election interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump is just the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. You can read the full text of the articles here.

Why didn’t the House vote to ‘censure’ Trump instead?

The idea was floated by a small group of House Democrats from districts where impeachment could be an electoral liability. Rather than face the prospect of being removed from office, Trump would be rebuked in a vote of formal disapproval over his actions in Ukraine. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ruled it out, saying, “If the goods are there, you must impeach.”

How many votes did it take to impeach the president?

Two hundred and sixteen. A simple majority in the House was all that’s required, so half of the members who vote plus one. The current makeup of the House is 233 Democrats, 197 Republicans and one independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party in July and voted in favor of impeachment.

What was the final vote tally?

The House approved the first article of impeachment, on abuse of power, by a vote of 230 to 197 after a daylong debate. Of the 233 Democrats, 229 voted in favor, along with the House’s one independent. Two Democrats opposed the article. No Republicans voted in favor.

The second article, charging obstruction of Congress, passed by a vote of 229 to 198, with three Democrats voting no, and again no Republicans in favor.

One Democrat, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, voted “present” on each article.

Is the obstruction charge related to the Mueller report?

No. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation identified at least 10 instances of Trump’s possible obstruction of justice related to that probe, but the special counsel ultimately declined to recommend charges due to a Justice Department policy that prevents federal prosecutors from charging a sitting president with a crime. 

The current obstruction of Congress charge stems from the White House’s blanket order for administration officials to refuse to cooperate with the impeachment probe.

What happens next?

A trial in the Senate, presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts, was expected to begin shortly after the New Year. But after the House voted to impeach Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she is waiting for the Senate to agree on procedures before she sends the articles over. She said she wants “a fair trial.”

How long can Pelosi withhold the articles of impeachment from the Senate?

Indefinitely.

What would a Senate trial look like?

In most matters during an impeachment trial, such as a vote over a potential witness, a simple majority vote in the Republican-controlled Senate would be needed. Trump has suggested he’d like to see former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment investigation and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff called to testify — a spectacle that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may want to avoid.

Indeed, Senate Republicans have already signaled they would rather have a speedy trial that may not include witnesses, though McConnell said no decisions have been made.

Could Trump challenge any aspect of his impeachment trial in federal court? 

No. In Nixon v. United States (not that Nixon), the Supreme Court ruled that impeachment is a political question and cannot be resolved in the courts.

With Trump impeached, is he allowed to govern before the Senate trial?

There is nothing in the Constitution limiting a president’s power during the period between impeachment in the House and the Senate trial that follows.

So the president doesn’t lose any power?

No. The president loses no power at all if he’s only impeached in the House.

Is there any legal consequence to his impeachment?

There is at least one. As UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich noted earlier this month, Trump now cannot be pardoned for crimes. “Article II, section 2 of the Constitution gives a president the power to pardon anyone who has been convicted of offenses against the United States,” Reich wrote, “with one exception: ‘In Cases of Impeachment.’

“He cannot pardon himself ... and he cannot be pardoned by a future president,” Reich added.

Is impeachment the same thing as removal from office?

It is not. Impeachment in the House is similar to a criminal indictment, while a vote in the Senate is required for removal. Both Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868, and Bill Clinton, whose impeachment came in 1998, were acquitted by the Senate. After acquittal, they served out their terms. Impeachment articles against Richard Nixon passed the Judiciary Committee in 1974, but he resigned prior to the full House voting.

Must a president have committed a crime in order to be impeached?

No. The Founding Fathers kept things vague with the intention of making impeachment political and not legal, with the Constitution saying impeachment can be for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The burden of proof has been lower than that of criminal courts, where it’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

How many Senate votes are needed to remove him from office?

Sixty-seven. A two-thirds supermajority of the 100-member Senate is required to remove a president from office. The current composition is 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, meaning 20 GOP members would have to break ranks with Trump for him to be removed, something that appears highly unlikely. 

What happens if Trump is removed?

Vice President Mike Pence would immediately become president. Pence would then nominate a candidate to become his vice president. Per the 25th Amendment, a majority vote in both houses of Congress is required to confirm a vice presidential nominee. This process happened twice in the 1970s, when Gerald Ford was nominated to replace Spiro Agnew after Agnew’s resignation and again when Nelson Rockefeller was nominated to replace Ford after Nixon’s resignation.

Could Trump run for president again if he’s removed by the Senate?

That depends. The Constitution says that the Senate can vote for removal and for “disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” In U.S. history, a president has never been removed from office only to seek it again, but federal judges who have been removed have required a second vote to disqualify them from future office. If that precedent were to be applied in the case of Trump’s ouster, the Senate would have one vote to remove him from office and another to disqualify him from future office. If the second vote isn’t held or fails, he could legally be free to run again.

Can the Senate vote to imprison a president?

No. That would require a separate criminal process, as the Constitution states the “party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgement and Punishment, according to Law.” The Senate’s abilities are limited to removing an official and disqualifying him or her from holding that office in the future. 

If he’s acquitted by the Senate, can Trump still run for reelection?

Yes.

Following a Senate acquittal, could Trump be impeached again?

Yes. In theory, the House could continue to pass additional articles of impeachment that would then trigger additional Senate trials. Throughout it all, the president would remain in office unless two-thirds of the Senate voted to remove him.

What is Trump saying about all of this?

The president has repeatedly called impeachment “a dirty word” and has reportedly fretted about the stain it would leave on his legacy.

On the eve of the vote, the president sent a scathing, insult-filled letter to Pelosi, accusing Democrats of “declaring open war on American Democracy,” among other things.

On the morning of the vote, Trump tweeted in disbelief, asking his Twitter followers to “Say a PRAYER” for him.

And at a rally in Battle Creek, Mich., the same night, the president said: “It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached.” 

Do Americans support impeachment?

According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted after the impeachment vote, majorities of registered voters agree that the president both abused his powers and obstructed Congress: 53 percent of registered voters said Trump abused his powers as president; only 40 percent said he did not. Fifty-one percent said Trump obstructed Congress; again, only 40 percent said he did not.

Voters favor the House’s decision to impeach the president by a 50 percent to 45 percent margin. Previous Yahoo News/YouGov polls found slightly lower levels of support for impeachment among registered voters: 48 percent in November and 49 percent earlier this month. The belief that Trump abused his powers has also ticked up slightly over time, rising 2 percentage points since November. And a majority of registered voters (52 percent) say that by pressuring Ukraine to launch investigations, Trump was primarily acting in his own personal and political self-interest.

Do the polls matter?

Not ones this close. Majorities this slim do not represent the sort of groundswell of popular support needed to change the political calculus in the Republican-controlled Senate, which will hold a trial and vote on removal after Pelosi forwards the articles of impeachment.

Will Fox News save Trump from impeachment?

Some observers have suggested that Nixon might have survived Watergate if Fox News had been around back then. And they might be right. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found just 29 percent of Fox News viewers support Trump’s impeachment and removal, compared to 70 percent who watch MSNBC or CNN.

Cover thumbnail photo: President Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images [3])

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