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Trump impeachment: What you need to know


Impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump move on to the next stage, with a vote scheduled in the House of Representatives. This is what you need to know.

What is an impeachment?

Impeachment is when a legislative body formally levels charges, which have to be very serious, against a high official of government, including the president.

It does not mean automatic removal from office and is only the first step towards possible removal.

It is not a criminal trial but a process to remove a high-level official, usually only a president in the US.

What’s happening this week?

The House Judiciary Committee released a 658-page report that details the two articles of impeachment against Mr Trump – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. It explains those charges and the evidence presented by Democrats.

It says: “Taken together, the articles charge that President Trump has placed his personal, political interests above our national security, our free and fair elections, and our system of checks and balances. He has engaged in a pattern of misconduct that will continue if left unchecked. Accordingly, President Trump should be impeached and removed from office.”

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee will set the guidelines for the debate and discuss any proposed changes to the Judiciary Committee’s resolution.

Because the panel is made up of four Republicans and nine Democrats – it is unlikely they will vote for significant changes. They will set how many hours politicians have to debate each of the two articles.

A full House of Representatives floor vote is set for Wednesday. The debate around it will likely take up most of that day. There is a chance the actual vote could spill into Thursday.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves the floor after the close of a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution formalising the impeachment inquiry centred on U.S. President Donald Trump October 31, 2019 in Washington, DC
Image: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

How did we get here?

A vocal minority has been calling for Mr Trump’s impeachment pretty much since he took office. Those calls grew during Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian interference and waned at its conclusion. Now cylinders are firing up again.

Why? It all centres around a phone call Mr Trump had with the Ukrainian president in July. One intelligence official was so alarmed by what Mr Trump said that they blew the whistle and filed a formal complaint.

Since then, numerous testimonies have corroborated a narrative that Mr Trump pushed for the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into Joe Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for 2020.

If true, Democrats say it would mean the US president abused the power of his office to influence a foreign country to meddle in the 2020 election.

The view among Democrats is that amounts to an impeachable offence. Mr Trump has admitted speaking about Mr Biden with Ukraine’s leader but insists he acted appropriately.

What next?

The House is expected to vote in favour of impeaching Donald Trump. Then it’s over to the Senate, where Republicans are the majority party.

The Senate trial is where things would really ignite with dramatic testimony that could ultimately remove Mr Trump from office. But that’s unlikely because nearly all Senate Republicans are firmly behind the president.

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Proceedings are governed by an eight-page manual that says the Senate needs to hear articles of impeachment shortly after the House reports them.

Members of the House of Representatives present the prosecution case and Mr Trump’s defence would be argued by his own lawyers.

Two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote against Mr Trump in order to remove him from office. This would be unprecedented.

At this point, only 16 of 47 Senate Democrats and independents publicly support impeaching the president. There is every chance that Mr Trump could be impeached and go on to win a second term in office.

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What’s the political strategy?

Republicans have changed their tune recently. They started off focusing on criticising the process. Now they’re looking a little more at substance.

In the face of a mountain of damaging facts expected in these first public hearings, some have started acknowledging there may have been a quid pro quo, but insisting that it doesn’t establish an impeachable offence.

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According to an 18-page leaked staff memo, House Republicans plan to focus on Mr Trump’s mindset (his intent and motive) and intangibles like impeachability, rather than trying to challenge a story that has been supported by multiple witnesses. The memo suggests they will focus on “four key pieces of evidence”.

  • That the best evidence of the 25 July call shows no “conditionality or evidence of pressure”
  • President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Mr Trump have both said there was no pressure on the call
  • The Ukrainian government was not aware of a hold on US security assistance at the time of the 25 July call
  • Mr Trump met with Mr Zelenskiy and the US supplied assistance without Ukraine investigating Mr Trump’s political rivals

What that memo doesn’t acknowledge is that senior officials like Mr Taylor and EU ambassador Gordon Sondland were under the impression a quid pro quo involving aid did exist and they spoke with their Ukrainian counterparts about that.

Democrats by contrast, are banking on these televised hearings being so shocking to the public, that viewers will be quickly convinced the president should be impeached. They know public feeling matters greatly.

House intelligence chair Adam Schiff has picked Mr Taylor, Mr Kent and Ms Yavanonvitch because he thinks they are indisputably compelling, trustworthy and apolitical. He hopes Mr Kent and Mr Taylor will provide a powerful opening and Ms Yavanonvitch, who was the first alleged victim of Rudy Giuliani’s “scheme”, will illicit sympathy.

We’re told Mr Schiff will be keeping quiet, avoiding media and expecting others to do the same. They want to be seen to be taking this incredibly seriously and to find understated ways to counter Republican theatrics.

They also want it dealt with as quickly as possible and in a very focused way, where arguments and evidence is laid out in a way voters can easily understand it. An impeachment process that drags on could seriously backfire.

The front page of a White House memorandum describing President Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Image: A White House memorandum describing Mr Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City, New York, U.S., September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Image: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with Donald Trump

Does the public want impeachment?

Washington is consumed by impeachment. But very often, what Capitol Hill is obsessed with is not what voters care most about.

There is some indication this time though that people at home are watching what happens closely. Let’s face it, Congress has the potential to oust the man the public chose to put in office.

Some recent polls show Mr Trump has a loyal core. In most surveys, opposition to impeachment among Republicans remains above 90%. His most ardent followers are white evangelicals.

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But in the places that matter the most, he’s looking a lot more vulnerable. According to a Times and Siena College poll, where voters in the six closest states carried by the president in 2016, 50% of registered voters supported the impeachment investigation and 45% opposed it.

Impeachment, even if it was to happen, certainly doesn’t equal removal. In that Times/Sienna poll of swing states, a majority also opposed removing Mr Trump from office – 53% to 43%.

Ultimately, the public look as divided as Congress.

Is there anything in the Joe Biden claims?

After Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, then vice president Biden became Barack Obama’s point-man, visiting frequently as he was tasked with tackling corruption.

Around that time his son Hunter took a lucrative position on the board of the country’s largest private gas company, Burisma. At the time it raised concerns of a possible conflict of interest.

Mr Biden argued that his son was a private citizen who made his own decisions. The Obama administration actually supported an investigation into Burisma because the owner had close ties to the recently ousted president.

Separately Mr Biden threatened to cut off US aid if a top prosecutor who was seen as failing to investigate corruption was not removed from office. Mr Trump’s supporters say Mr Biden was actually doing this so that his son would not be investigated.

No evidence has been offered to back this claim which has been called “baseless” by the Biden camp.