Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/DAVIS BECKER
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/DAVIS BECKER

Washington — The US House of Representatives on Tuesday launched an official impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump after he allegedly encouraged a foreign leader to conduct a probe that could damage a political rival.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, announced the investigation at a news conference, declaring “no-one is above the law”.

There has been a groundswell of support among Democratic party legislators for the move after Trump’s public admission that he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the son of presidential candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden.

Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that the July 25 phone call was “very friendly and totally appropriate” and that he put “no pressure” on Zelensky. He later called the house probe “witch hunt garbage” in a tweet.

The following explains how the impeachment process works.

Why impeachment?

The founders of the US created the office of the presidency and feared its powers could be abused. So they included in the US constitution a procedure for removing a sitting president from office.

Under the constitution, the president can be removed from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. What exactly that means is unclear. Historically, it can encompass corruption and other abuses of the public’s trust.

A president does not need to have violated a specific criminal law to have committed an impeachable offence.

Many legal commentators have said that putting pressure on a foreign leader to interfere in a US election is the sort of conduct the nation’s founders would have considered an impeachable offence.

How does it work?

A misconception about impeachment is that it refers to the removal of a president from office. In fact, impeachment refers only to the house, the lower chamber of Congress, bringing charges — similar to an indictment in a criminal case.

There is debate over how an impeachment investigation should begin. Doug Collins, the leading Republican on the judiciary committee, has argued that a formal impeachment investigation does not begin until the full house has voted to authorise it. But Democratic legislators have argued that such a vote is not necessary.

The house judiciary committee has historically led impeachment investigations, but Democratic party leaders can opt to put a select, handpicked committee in charge.

If a simple majority of the house's 435 members approves bringing charges, known as “articles of impeachment”, the process moves to the Senate, the upper chamber, which holds a trial to determine the president's guilt.

In such a trial, house members act as the prosecutors, the senators as jurors and the chief justice of the US supreme court presides. A two-thirds majority vote is required in the 100-member Senate to convict and remove a president.

Legislators are not required to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidentiary standard in a criminal case.

Party breakdown in Congress?

The house has 235 Democrats, 199 Republicans, and one independent. As a result, the Democrats could impeach Trump with no Republican support.

In 1998, when Republicans had a house majority, the chamber voted largely along party lines to impeach president Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Two and a half months passed between the house voting to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Clinton and his impeachment.

The Senate now has 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with the Democrats. Conviction and removal of a president would require 67 votes. So, for Trump to be removed from office via impeachment, at least 20 Republicans and all the Democrats and independents would have to vote against him.

The Republican majority in the Senate could vote to immediately dismiss the charges against Trump without considering evidence.

No president has been removed as a direct result of impeachment. President Richard Nixon, resigned in 1974 before he could be impeached. Presidents Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Clinton, were impeached by the house, but not convicted by the Senate.

Who becomes president if Trump is removed?

In the unlikely event the Senate convicted Trump, vice-president Mike Pence would become president for the remainder of Trump's term, which ends on January 20, 2021.

Is there another way to remove a president?

Under the US constitution’s 25th amendment, a president can be replaced by the vice-president if the president becomes unable to do the job, such as due to a disabling medical or mental condition. That process begins with the vice-president and a majority of the members of the cabinet notifying Congress that the president is not capable of performing the job.