What is impeachment

On September 24, 2019, in the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and House Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, announced the formation of a committee to initiate an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. This term, which has been used often throughout various administrations, refers to the charges brought against the highest political position in the United States. There are three reasons for which this might occur. In this specific case, Trump is formally investigated by Congress for a case involving a phone call from July 25, 2019, in which the former businessman asked the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. This was the political consequence of the news, which unsurprisingly made waves even internationally. Depending on the outcome, it could change the current political order.

Impeachment is a process by which the president of the United States, or anyone who holds a public role, can be sent to trial after establishing that they have committed crimes(of varying types) while carrying out their role. Impeachment is a function included in the United States Constitution and is essentially an attempt to “forcefully” remove a governmental figure from office. In the United States, the cases for which impeachment proceedings can be initiated include treason, corruption or “other high crimes and misdemeanours.” Under the United States Constitution and legal system, executive members, the president, vice president and all civil officers can be impeached, as well as judges (who are, however, to be considered members of federal jurisdiction).

Impeachment was introduced into the US legislative system by Benjamin Franklin, and the idea was to find a solution for cases in which the president (or high-ranking public figure) had abused their power.

If proceedings are started, the House of Representatives would be the ones to do so (even just one member can act of their own accord), and they would then discuss the conditions of the charges. At that point, if the vote has a positive outcome in the House (and this would require a simple majority of those present), the article then passes to the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required in order to convict the accused. After the eventual conviction decision in the Senate, the person is automatically removed from office. In addition, it is possible that the person could be excluded from holding other public roles in the future.

In the case involving the current president, impeachment also must undergo a vote by the House to obtain a majority of 218 out of 435 members. At the moment, Democrats hold the majority with 235 seats, whereas the Republicans have 197, one is held by an Independent and two are vacant. Already over half of the representatives, 224 to be precise, have expressed their support for the inquiry.

Once the numbers have been reached, the following step would take place in the Senate, which is presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, currently held by John G. Roberts Jr. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote from the Senate, which would be a very high threshold given the counts from recent days when neither of the parties were able to reach the 60 votes needed to avoid obstructionism.

Impeachment charges must be investigated by six different House committees (which, in this specific case, have been collecting information on Trump for some time) and then reformulated by the judiciary committee. Once drafted, the charges must be approved by the committee: then there is a simple House majority vote, and finally, it goes to the Senate. It is here that the senators act as judges in the trial where they listen to each party’s version of the facts (the House would be the prosecution and the president’s lawyers the defence), under the supervision of the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

For many, Nancy Pelosi’s decision should almost be considered historic since, so far, there have only been two other cases in which presidents have been officially involved in impeachment proceedings, and no one has ever been removed from office. In 1868, following the civil war, Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing his War secretary at a time when the president couldn’t fire a cabinet official without the approval of Congress. Then, in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached for “sexgate,” the scandal involving sexual relations between him and the young intern, Monica Lewinsky. In that case, the accusations involved lying under oath and obstruction of justice for having lied in public about his relationship with Lewinsky. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, chose to resign in 1974 before the House could meet to vote on his eventual removal.

The case of Trump regarding Biden appears particularly significant after no similar choice was made following the release of the report from Robert Mueller on the presumed contracts between the former businessman and the Russian government (and on the presumed attempts by Trump to block investigations). In this case as well, Trump will probably not be removed from office, but the proceedings, if they are ever started, will force him to undergo the process, which could influence (and significantly) the 2020 electoral campaign.

The decision to initiate impeachment proceedings came after information emerged that Trump had pressured president Zelensky to open investigations into democrat Joe Biden (a possible challenger in the next election). According to various press sources, Biden, as vice president, removed a Ukrainian prosecutor who could have investigated his son Hunter, who at the time served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, the president of which had some legal troubles. According to the Il Post, it would seem that the prosecutor was already considered corrupt by the international community. Despite this, Trump has admitted to having asked Zelensky to investigate both Bidens and to having threatened to suspend payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid destined for Ukraine. Nancy Pelosi, in her speech in which she announced the start of impeachment proceedings, explained that in extorting the Ukrainian president Trump’sactions are a “betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”

The charges against Trump, today, fall more under abuse of power. The Democrats have accused him of taking advantage of his position of strength to obtain (private) information about a political opponent, to eventually change the outcome of the next US electoral campaign. Because, if Trump’s true motive was to verifyBiden’s role in some sort of wrongdoing, he could have gone to the intelligence agencies instead of involving the head of another state.

The House decides how long the impeachment inquiry will last, but US watchdogs foresee it continuing for four months, an estimate based also on prior cases.


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