Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s move to start a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump sets in motion a rarely used Constitutional process to investigate and possibly remove the president. Here is a look at how it works.
What is a formal impeachment inquiry?
The investigation announcement puts an official stamp of approval on a process that many Democrats felt had already begun. Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve a “resolution for investigative procedures” to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump. In her Tuesday address, Pelosi directed the six House committees already investigating the president to continue under “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”
Making the investigation official means the House has full power to gather necessary information, said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor with Harvard University. The administration’s “stonewalling” will face more resistance, he added.
One ongoing debate: whether the full House must vote to authorize this impeachment inquiry. Such a vote took place during impeachment proceedings against both President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton, but the Constitution does not require it. In fact, the Constitution does not specify any required procedure to move forward with an impeachment investigation.
What happens after an investigation?
After reviewing the evidence, the House Judiciary Committee would decide whether to draft articles of impeachment, essentially making a point-by-point case against the president. If the committee approves the articles, it would then recommend them to the full House for a vote. A simple majority is all it takes to approve one or more of the articles in order to impeach the president. Approval does not lead to the president’s removal, however. That requires action in the Senate.
The role of the Senate
Once a president is impeached by the House, the Senate is expected to hold an impeachment trial to determine if the president should be removed from office. Removal requires a two-third majority in the Senate — or 67 senators. There’s no formal process for a trial, but the Senate may adopt rules laying out the procedure.
A trial is not required, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could try to get the full Senate to vote to dismiss the charges, but that would likely face significant public backlash.
If McConnell decided to move forward with a trial it “could be disastrous for the president,” said Allan Lichtman, a historian and professor with American University. “The House under those conditions can call witnesses, bring forth documents, and make opening and closing statements … The president would have to defend himself with real arguments, not [Rudy] Giuliani and television spin.”
Whatever McConnell decides, Trump’s removal from office is unlikely. Republicans have the majority in the senate, with 53 votes, and there’s no sign they will abandon Trump.