What Does the Latest Impeachment Vote Mean?

The House of Representatives voted 232-196 Thursday to establish rules governing impeachment proceedings moving forward—and which set up the roadmap for the impeachment of Donald Trump. 

(Backbone Campaign / Creative Commons)

The Constitution does not establish the procedural rules for an impeachment—the House needs to set them up. Thursday’s vote, although it was not itself a vote to impeach the president, only establishes the rules of procedure going forward. The goal of the House resolution formalizing impeachment proceedings was to establish a transparent and fair process by which the public can be informed about the evidence that Congressional lawmakers have been hearing in closed-door deposition sessions for the past six weeks, and will be continuing to hear for the next few weeks. 

Thus far, the House has been engaged in an investigation, much of which was kept secret to ensure that classified information is not revealed and that witnesses do not coordinate testimony. The investigation phase isn’t over—there are six House committees continuing investigations into possibly impeachable offenses by this president, and they will continue to conduct their investigations for a period of time that is not specified—but the process will now advance in response to information that has compelled lawmakers to act.

Testimonies in the impeachment proceedings so far, for example, revealed a months-long pressure campaign by the president and Rudy Guiliani to coerce the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into Joe Biden in exchange for money already allocated by Congress to help Ukraine fight off Russian aggression. Those surprising facts shocked many people, even in Trump’s own administration who have come forward to testify in depositions in the House Select Committee on Intelligence. 

There is also an urgent call for more public knowledge about the impeachment proceedings: 55 percent of Americans say they want the investigation to proceed, and in the next phase they’ll be able to watch it in real time. Impeachment proceedings moving forward will now include witnesses appearing in open, televised sessions before the House and transcripts of testimony released to the public. 

The open televised sessions will look and sound something like a trial proceeding in a court of law, with a direct exam of each witness—led by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, or another attorney working as an aide in the House, with a cross-examination led by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, or an attorney for the president. Lawmakers usually have only five minutes to ask questions one after the other in hearings in the House, but this new format should help the evidence come out in a more direct way. Ideally, people watching the proceedings on TV will be able to assess the truth for themselves, as jurors would do in a jury trial.

Contrary to much of what the White House claims, these procedural rules are actually more generous to the president than those governing the Nixon and Clinton impeachments. Trump and his counsel are invited to all proceedings and can participate in the questioning of witnesses. They will get copies of all the evidence and can submit evidence. They can ask for witnesses to be subpoenaed to testify, and they can also obtain documents. The process will also include larger chunks of time—45 minutes—for witnesses to be questioned by both parties or counsel teams, and both sides will get equal time.

The president and White House have been engaged in a massive effort to stonewall the impeachment proceedings, most notably by refusing to respond to any and all House subpoenas and by trying to prevent and block any and all witnesses from testifying. Because of that, the House departed from precedent to establish a rule declaring that if the president “unlawfully” refuses to participate by failing to make witnesses or evidence available, “the chair shall have the discretion to impose appropriate remedies, including by denying specific requests by the president or his counsel under these procedures to call or question witnesses.” What this means is that the House is anticipating that the president may continue to try to game the system, block and interfere with the proceedings.  The House is warning the president and his team that there will be consequences for that behavior such as limiting their ability to question witnesses in the open hearings that will be held in the House.  

This, of course, is not the final step in this process. The Permanent Select Committee, which is a combined committee made up of Democrats and Republicans from three of the House committees already investigating the president, will eventually issue a report to the House Judiciary Committee, which will gather the information from the other investigative committees and draw up the Articles of Impeachment, if they decide they are warranted. If they do, that House committee will then send a report to the Senate, where the actual impeachment trial will take place. These procedural House rules do not tell us the rules for the Senate trial—that will be up to the Senate to determine.

Nobody can predict what will come next. But given the facts that are already known from witness statements, and other evidence already made public—including statements made by the president himself and the read out of a transcript of a July phone call the president had with Zelenskyy of Ukraine—the president seems to have clearly committed violations of campaign finance law, solicitation of bribery, abuse of power and a betrayal of our national security, I would wager that we’ll soon be analyzing the House’s Articles of Impeachment.


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.