What the Trump Impeachment Inquiry Really Means

On September 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump had begun in the House.  The focus of this impeachment inquiry will be the president’s actions, revealed in a whistleblower complaint and corroborated by the White House’s own transcript of a call in which President Trump tried to solicit help from President Zelensky of Ukraine to manufacture dirt on leading 2020 political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The whistleblower also alleges President Trump told government officials to suspend almost $400 million in U.S. military aid for Ukraine earlier in the month before the July 25 phone call in question.

In addition, the transcript of that phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president that may implicate the president in impeachable offenses was improperly classified and put into a separate code-protected server to ensure fewer people would see it.

In short, the allegation: The president of the United States abused his office by using taxpayer dollars to solicit help from a foreign leader in order to win reelection in 2020, then tried to cover it up.  

What does the Constitution say about impeachment?

When our founders wrote the Constitution, they wanted to be sure that our country would not someday turn into a monarchy like England.  The king of England had extensive powers that were relatively unchecked.  He could order his political rivals to be imprisoned or order the persecution of a religious group he did not like.  This was unacceptable to the founders who were forging a constitutional democracy in which no person would be above the law—including the president.  

The Constitution established three branches of government that would act as checks and balances on each other—the executive, judicial and legislative branches—and gave each branch distinct powers.

The founders imagined one day Americans might elect a president who would want to be more like a king, exerting the vast power he would have as president to advance his own interests, enrich himself and possibly work in concert with a foreign power against the interests of our own country.  Such a president might not abide by his oath of office to uphold the law and follow the rules set forth in the Constitution.  A president like that might need to be removed from office.  The founders set up an impeachment roadmap that could be used to remove a president who had abused his office.

What does it mean to impeach?

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution gave the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach a president. Impeachment of a president does not mean he will necessarily be removed from office, however. 

The process begins with an investigation phase in which the House holds hearings to uncover the truth, interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence. This is the phase the House is currently in. Think of this as a research phase. If there is evidence of “treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors,” the House may then draw up articles of impeachment.  

What are “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

High crimes and misdemeanors do not require that the president commit criminal acts that he could be indicted for as a citizen. An impeachable offense need not be a criminal offense—although criminal offenses may be part of the conduct embedded in the articles of impeachment. Activities that are clear abuses of power or violations of the president’s oath of office to abide by the laws and defend the Constitution are likely to be seen as impeachable offenses because they are evidence of a president who has stepped over the line by defying Constitutional limits on his power. 

Each article is debated and voted on by the 435 members in the House of Representatives.  If a simple majority of House members votes that the president violated his oath of office or abused his power for even one of the articles of impeachment, the matter is sent to the Senate for a trial.  

If the House votes to impeach, what happens next?

The trial takes place in the Senate with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, acting as the presiding judge.  From there, the Senate has the power to convict and expel the president from office. Two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 Senators, would have to vote to convict on at least one of the articles of impeachment to remove the president from office.

In the history of the U.S., only two presidents have been impeached in the House, and none have ever been convicted by the Senate. In the case of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, articles of impeachment in the House were drawn up, but there were insufficient votes in the Senate to convict.  A third president, Richard Nixon, chose to resign before the full House voted on impeachment. (At the time, only the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted on and approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon.)

What launched the impeachment inquiry?  

The current impeachment inquiry was set in motion by a whistleblower complaint. The person making that complaint learned from many people inside the White House who currently work as aides, as well as other members of Trump’s own team, that Trump had engaged in a series of actions involving the newly-elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. He or she feared these actions constituted an abuse of power. 

Trump repeatedly pushed Zelensky, directly himself and through a pressure campaign using personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani and others, to get Zelensky to do a personal political favor for him—if he hoped to get the congressionally-allocated military aid his country desperately needed.  

How did Trump abuse the powers of the presidency?

Trump repeatedly urged Zelensky to re-open an already closed investigation that Trump hoped to use to damage Biden, his most likely political rival in 2920.

During the Obama administration, then-Vice-President Joe Biden had been part of the administration—joined by many other nations and NGOs—working to help clean up corruption in Ukraine.  A Ukrainian gas company called Burisma Holdings was under investigation by a prosecutor known to be corrupt. Biden was one of many people and groups, including the IMF and the European Union, who insisted the prosecutor be replaced by someone who would do a better job of ferreting out the corruption and ending it. 

It is unclear whether Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma during this corruption investigation. But there was never any evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden or by the vice president, and attempts to directly link Biden’s son to the corruption investigation are part of the smear campaign that Trump and his allies are currently engaged in to damage his political rival. The favor Trump wanted had nothing to do with protecting our country’s interests: It was about Trump’s re-election campaign interests.

According to the whistleblower’s complaint, in a telephone conversation Trump had with Zelensky on July 25, Trump repeatedly pushed Zelensky to open an investigation into Vice President Biden to try to find some dirt on his political opponent.  At the same time, Trump froze almost 400 million dollars in military aid—funds already approved by Congress and desperately needed by Ukraine to defend against Russian aggression.  Trump told officials in his administration to say the money was being held up by an “interagency” problem, which was false. 

In addition, aides to Trump, fearful that he had committed impeachable offenses, tried to cover up the existence of the highly damaging telephone conversation by putting the transcript of the conversation into a more secure password-protected server in an effort to cover up the nature of the conversation. Normally such transcripts are put on a server accessible by various agencies, like the State Department or Department of Defense, to guide their actions.

If true, these facts expose the president to impeachment.  They are evidence of a betrayal of Trump’s oath of office and his duty to uphold the Constitution as president. They also expose a national security threat to our country by the president himself. 

The president’s alleged actions interfered with Congressional efforts to keep a Western European ally safe from Russian aggression. In addition, someone with knowledge of this secret conversation would be in a position to blackmail the president to keep it from coming out.  

These are the allegations that will be the subject of the impeachment inquiry in the House.  In the coming weeks, the House Intelligence Committee, led by Adam Schiff, will subpoena witnesses to testify and produce evidence for the committee to review.  

Whatever the outcome of this impeachment process, this is a very important moment in the history of our country. 

This is not the time for feminists to sit on the sidelines—and now more than ever, independent journalism like Ms. is needed to keep feminists everywhere informed and empowered to fight back. But we can’t do it without you.

Just like public radio stations, we depend on our supporters and readers to keep Ms. strong and free from the influence of corporate advertisers—so Ms. is accountable only to the truth. 

We don’t have to tell you what dangerous times we face. It’s only with the help of readers like you that Ms. can continue our independent reporting and truth-telling. If you are able, please consider supporting us for as little as $5 a month.


Sheila Markin Nielsen is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and author of The Markin Report, a blog on the right side of history and the left side of politics making sense of a world turned upside down.