President Donald Trump’s impeachment process has entered a new phase. On Wednesday, following a 228-193 vote largely along party lines, the House of Representatives sent two articles of impeachment to the Senate, and named seven ‘impeachment managers’ who will prosecute the case against the President at the trial. The managers marched across the Capitol from the House to the Senate in a procession to deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate.
“What is at stake here is the constitution of the United States,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “This is what an impeachment is about. The President violated his oath of office, undermined our national security, jeopardised the integrity of our elections.”
This is a remarkable moment in the history of the US. Trump is only the third President in more than 230 years to face an impeachment trial in the Senate. The House, which is controlled by opposition Democrats, impeached him in December. The Senate, where the President’s Republican Party has a majority, will decide whether to convict and remove him from office.
No President has ever been removed by impeachment. Senate trials of Presidents Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1999) ended in acquittals. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before the House could vote on the articles of impeachment, after his impeachment and conviction appeared inevitable.
What is meant by impeachment?
Under the US constitution, Congress can remove a President from office before the end of their term if enough lawmakers vote to confirm that the President committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. The last phrase has its roots in the common law tradition of the United Kingdom, and means, in essence, an abuse of power by a public official in a high position.
In 1788, Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of the United States and its first Secretary of the Treasury, said in one of the Federalist Papers that an impeachable crime is an “offence that proceeds from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself”.
The American constitution lays down that “the House of Representatives… shall have the sole Power of Impeachment” (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5), and “the Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments” (Article 1, Section 3, Clause 6). After passing through the House, the process of Trump’s impeachment has now reached the Senate.
What is Trump accused of?
It started after a whistleblower complained in August 2019 that White House officials believed they had witnessed Trump abuse his power for political gain. The President was accused of pressuring, in the course of a telephone call, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an inquiry against former Vice President Joe Biden, who could be Trump’s Democratic opponent in the November election. At the time he spoke with Zelensky, Trump had put a personal freeze on more than $391 million of US aid intended for Ukraine’s use against continuing Russian hostility. Without directly mentioning the money, Trump told Zelensky that “the United States has been very very good to Ukraine”, and suggested reciprocity. He then said, “I would like you to do us a favour”, and subsequently brought up Biden and his son Hunter who at one time worked in Ukraine.
The first article of impeachment, “Abuse of power”, sent by the House to the Senate says Trump “solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 United States Presidential election… through a scheme… that included soliciting… Ukraine to publicly announce investigations that would benefit his reelection”, and “also sought to pressure… Ukraine… by conditioning official United States Government acts of significant value to Ukraine on its public announcement of the investigations”.
“In so doing,… Trump used the powers of the Presidency in a manner that compromised the national security of the United States and undermined the integrity of the United States democratic process. He thus ignored and injured the interests of the Nation.”
The second article of impeachment, “Obstruction of Congress”, says Trump “directed Executive Branch agencies, offices, and officials not to comply with… subpoenas [issued by the House], seeking to “arrogate to himself the right to determine the propriety, scope, and nature of an impeachment inquiry into his own conduct”. In this Trump “acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice, and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States”.
Trump impeachment trial: What will happen now?
On Wednesday afternoon, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell accepted the articles of impeachment. The impeachment managers were scheduled to return to the Senate at noon on Thursday (10.30 pm in India) to read aloud the articles of impeachment.
Article 1, Section 3, Clause 6 of the US constitution says, “When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice [of the Supreme Court] shall preside”. Upon being summoned by the Senate, Chief Justice John G Roberts will go across from the Supreme Court to the Capitol, and will be sworn in as the presiding officer. This was expected to happen around 2 pm (12.30 am on Friday in India).
Chief Justice Roberts will then administer oaths to all 100 Senators, who will raise their hands and swear to render “impartial justice”, and proceed to sign a book to attest to their oath. Thereafter, the chamber will issue a writ of summons inviting the President to answer the charges brought against him.
On Thursday, the Senate is expected to set specific dates for the receipt of trial briefs from the House impeachment managers and counsel for the President. American media were reporting that the proceedings are then expected to adjourn until Tuesday, when the trial will begin in earnest — with a debate on the rules of the trial, including whether witnesses would be allowed, and opening arguments by both sides.
The trial is expected to continue for two weeks or longer. This means that the President could still be in the dock early next month, when the states of Iowa and New Hampshire will hold the first contests to pick his Democratic opponent.
Will Trump be removed from office?
The possibility of that happening is extremely remote. Not only do the Republicans — who have vowed to acquit him — control the Senate 53-47, under the constitution, “no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present” (Article 1, Section 3, Clause 6). All Republican Representatives voted against the House resolution to transmit the articles of impeachment. Trump is almost certain to survive.
What is of greater interest is how the trial impacts the President’s reelection campaign. Trump has been aggressive in mocking and seeking to delegitimise the impeachment proceedings. He is expected to respond in writing. On Wednesday, even as the articles of impeachment were being signed and delivered, new details related to the impeachment inquiry were emerging (see The World page). It remains to be seen how this new information, as well as any witness testimonies, if they are allowed, plays out.
(With inputs from The New York Times)
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