November 1st, 2019


Presidents and Impeachment: The Impeachment Inquiry Against Donald Trump

This month we will look at the subject of impeachment, the process by which a charge of misconduct is made against the holder of a public office, in this case the President of the United States. Many people mistake impeachment for removal from office. Impeachment is the formal laying of a charge accusing the President of "high crimes and misdemeanors". If a President is "impeached" (i.e. if he or she is charged with such offenses), a trial is held in the Senate. If convicted, the President may be removed from office. Thus far only two Presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Both were acquitted in a trial before the senate.

Article One of the United States Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment. This article also gives the Senate the sole power to try impeachments of officers of the U.S. federal government. To secure a conviction during the second stage, "the concurrence of two thirds of the members present" in the Senate is required.

An impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump was formally commenced on September 24, 2019 by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The process resulted from the allegations of a "whistleblower" who claimed that President Trump and other top government officials had pressured the leaders of Ukraine to investigate former U.S. Vice-President and current 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. It is alleged that President Trump abused his power in order to advance his own personal and political interests.

These allegations have been supported by the testimony of envoy Bill Taylor, Laura Cooper (a Pentagon official overseeing Ukraine-related U.S. policy), White House administration official Fiona Hill, and at least six additional White House officials. The reports allegedly implicate President Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, as well as a number of other individuals in taking part in a quid-pro-quo campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to take actions to investigate the Bidens. The President is accused of doing so in order to assist his 2020 presidential campaign.

The first complaint was presented to Congress on September 25, 2019. A second whistleblower came forward on October 5 claiming to have "first-hand knowledge of allegations" about a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It is alleged that between May and August 2019, Trump and Giuliani repeatedly pressured the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden. On July 18, President Trump instructed his staff to place a hold on congressionally mandated military aid to Ukraine. During a phone call a week later, he pressured President Zelensky to launch two investigations, including one into the actions of the Bidens. The whistleblower accused the White House of attempting to cover up the contents of this phone call.

In response to these accusations, the Trump administration released a memorandum of the call, confirming that Trump had asked Zelensky to "look into" Biden. The whistleblower alleges that White House officials attempted to cover up the President's action by intentionally misclassifying the transcript of the call in order to place it in top secret servers where very few people would have access to it.

The White House officially responded to the impeachment proceedings in a letter from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to House Speaker Pelosi. In the response Cipollone said that the White House would cease all cooperation with the investigation for a variety or reasons, including concernts that there had been no vote of the full House, and that interviews of witnesses were being conducted behind closed doors. Ambassador Bill Taylor testified that he had been told that U.S. military aid to Ukraine and a proposed meeting between Trump and Zelensky would depend on Zelensky publicly announcing investigations into the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Army Lt. Colonel. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council's Director of European Affairs, testified that he overheard Trump's phone conversation with Zelensky and that he had told a White House lawyer that he was concerned about the president's comments in the call.

Earlier this week, on October 28, 2019, Pelosi announced that the House would hold a floor vote on October 31 on a resolution to formally establish the procedures for the impeachment hearings. Yesterday, on October 31, 2019, the House of Representatives approving guidelines for the public phase of the inquiry. The House approved a resolution, by a vote of 232 to 196, that formalized the inquiry, clearing the way for nationally televised hearings in mid-November. The motion included providing President Trump the right to participate in the latter stage of the proceedings unless he tries to block witnesses from testifying. The vote was nearly along party lines.

The vote came as Tim Morrison, a top official on Trump’s National Security Council, testified in a closed-door deposition. Morrison corroborated previous testimony that the president withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country into announcing investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and interference in the 2016 election. He said he got the information directly from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, the administration official who communicated that apparent quid pro quo to Ukrainian leaders.

As this story unfolds, we will look at previous incidents of impeachment in Presidential history.