I recently heard that a friend of mine was confused about the impeachment process now underway in the House of Representatives. I will try here to clarify, in simple English and without legalisms, what is going on and why.
The president is currently subject to an “impeachment inquiry” started by a resolution of the House of Representatives. The “inquiry” is a fancy term for an investigation. That investigation is about the question whether the president in his dealings with Ukraine committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors,” that are the criteria for impeachment in the U.S. Constitution. If impeached (by the House adopting articles of impeachment) and convicted (by the Senate finding that the asserted crimes in the articles are true), he may be removed from office. Since he is still president during this process, he cannot be indicted (according to the Department of Justice). Once removed, however, he can be indicted, tried, convicted and sent to prison for crimes committed while in office.
The investigation is being conducted through two main processes.
The first process is the gathering of evidence through testimony-under-oath by various witnesses who have been subpoenaed (ordered to appear) or have volunteered to testify. Initially, those depositions (taking testimony under oath recorded verbatim) were conducted in private sessions open to members of the three investigating committees from both parties. Despite the opportunity to be present and ask questions, Republicans have complained bitterly about what they hysterically and falsely called “secret” sessions, even to the point of storming into one of the sessions in a group, violating the security requirements that apply to the site of the depositions.
The second process is the public hearing phase, now being broadcast on many TV stations, in which the same witnesses are called to be examined in public, again by both Democrats and Republicans. Now the Republicans, including the president himself, are bitterly claiming that the hearings should not be public. In the end of their rhetoric, what the Republicans want is to shut down the impeachment process entirely. That is not going to happen.
Why, then, is this impeachment inquiry happening? The essence of it is that Donald Trump tried to use Congressionally approved funding to help Ukraine defend against further military incursions by Russia and also the prospect of a meeting with Trump for the newly elected Ukraine president (Zelensky) to leverage Ukraine’s new leadership to announce investigations into the then-leading challenger to Trump’s re-election, Joe Biden. The immediate target of the investigation would be Biden’s son, Hunter, who was, for a period, being paid $50,000 a month to sit on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Republicans claim that this arrangement was part of the historic and endemic corruption that has afflicted Ukrainian political leadership for a very long time, but thus far no evidence has turned up to indicate that either Joe or Hunter Biden broke any laws.
All this is complicated by a number of details that are not central to the issue of what the president did, but they certainly illuminate his motives and explain his conduct. For one, Trump used his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani to engage with the Ukrainians and to promote false conspiracy theories about the Biden’s and to lead a smear campaign against the sitting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Trump eventually fired her without notice or explanation.
There are many other characters in this drama, some with long titles and long histories as diplomats in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. Republicans have attacked many of these people because they obtained some or all of their information about Trump’s campaign against Biden through other sources. Indeed, the initial report that started all of this came from an anonymous whistleblower. The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reviewed the whistleblower’s report and found it credible and disturbing. The impeachment inquiry followed.
It is important not to be distracted by the efforts of Republicans to focus the fight on side issues, such as the identity of the whistleblower or the “hearsay” nature of some of the evidence against Trump. The most damaging evidence was direct and produced by Trump himself, in the form of a memo (not a transcript) of his call with Ukraine President Zelensky in which Trump called on Zelensky to start the investigation. There is much additional testimony from Trump appointees, like Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, who personally participated in the leveraging of Ukraine.
The impeachment may be broadened before it’s over. One example comes from the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s final report found 10 instances of obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his staff and administration. These may, and in my opinion definitely should, be included in the forthcoming articles of impeachment. A second major example is playing out in the courts now – Democrats in the House are seeking access to many of the redacted materials in the Mueller Report that may show that Trump lied to Mueller and is thus guilty of the high crime of perjury.
So, the impeachment is pretty straightforward when the Republican smoke is cleared away. Trump tried to induce Zelensky to publicly announce a Ukrainian investigation of the Biden’s to damage Joe Biden’s challenge to Trump’s re-election. The evidence on this is clear. He did it. The evidence of obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report is also clear. The House of Representatives is collecting the evidence and presenting it through public hearings. Eventually, when the hearings are completed, the House will have the opportunity to vote on “articles of impeachment.” These are like a criminal indictment. They will state the specific charges of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the House leadership believes are the basis for impeaching the president.
If the articles are approved by a majority vote in the House prior to the 2020 election, the impeachment moves to the Republican-controlled Senate for “trial” to determine if the president is guilty of the charged offenses and, if so, what the penalty should be. This process will be controlled entirely by Republicans and, absent a massive change in positioning, Republicans will refuse to convict the president regardless of the charges and regardless of the evidence.
The question of judging Trump’s conduct in office will then move to final determination in the election of 2020.