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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced late yesterday that the House had opened an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. It’s a news story that will be with us for weeks to come. Here are answers to five questions you might have now.
Why an impeachment inquiry now?
Support among Democrats for opening impeachment proceedings against Trump has been building for months for a litany of reasons, not the least being the findings of the Mueller Report. This push gained momentum with last week’s news that the administration had refused to send Congress a complaint from an unnamed whistleblower in the intelligence community, something it is required by law to do. Then the news broke that at least part of the whistleblower’s complaint involved Trump’s efforts to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son Hunter. That prompted seven freshman Democrats, all from so-called swing districts and all veterans of the U.S. military or the intelligence community, to write an op-ed in the Washington Post. They urged the House to investigate what they called “unprecedented allegations” that the president “used his position to pressure a foreign country into investigating a political opponent, and he sought to use U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage to do it.” With moderate voices now joining more liberal ones, Pelosi moved with the backing of most of her caucus.
What happens next?
The step Pelosi took yesterday was to launch an “official impeachment inquiry.” In doing so, she did not commit to asking the full House to authorize the inquiry. That is a departure from how the House handled the Nixon and Clinton impeachments. In those two instances, the full House voted to direct the House Judiciary Committee to begin impeachment proceedings. Many Republican members of Congress have made much of this discrepancy, though it’s not obvious it has any legal significance. Although the Constitution explicitly empowers the House to impeach federal officials, it says nothing about the procedures it must follow in doing so. Neither do the rules of the House.
Pelosi may have declined to call for a full House vote because she doesn’t believe she needs it, wants to spare Democrats in swing districts from having to go on the record, or doesn’t think she has the votes to carry the day in the House. If the latter is the reason, she may soon change her mind. As of today, 216 members of Congress are on record in favor of an impeachment inquiry. The magic number for a majority is 218.
Pelosi also did not commit to holding a vote on whether to impeach Trump. Her remarks yesterday instead focused on the more immediate task of how to conduct the impeachment inquiry. She directed six House committees already conducting oversight investigations of Trump to review their work and to forward their most compelling evidence to the House Judiciary Committee. Pelosi did not set a deadline for that task or for the Judiciary Committee to complete its review of the materials it receives.
In all, it could be weeks—or longer—before the Judiciary Committee makes any decisions. That means that talk about how the House might vote and what it might vote on is wildly premature. Even more premature is discussing what the Senate might do if the House votes to impeach the president. (Fun fact: The only thing the Constitution says about the Senate trial of an impeached president is that the chief justice of the Supreme Court must preside over the proceedings and that “the concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present” is required for conviction. The Constitution says nothing about how the Senate should conduct its trial. It doesn’t even explicitly require the Senate to hold one. It could conceivably ignore the House’s action.)
How unusual is impeachment?
Presidential impeachments used to be rare. Just one of the first thirty-six presidents—Andrew Johnson—was impeached. He was impeached by the House and then acquitted in the Senate by just one vote. (John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, devotes a chapter to Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, whose vote for acquittal saved Johnson’s presidency.) Pelosi’s announcement makes Trump the third president among the last nine to be the target of an impeachment inquiry. Richard Nixon, of course, resigned the presidency before the House could impeach him. Bill Clinton failed to head off impeachment, but was acquitted by the Senate.
Trump’s impeachment inquiry differs from Nixon’s and Clinton’s in one significant way. Both Nixon and Clinton were in the middle of their second term in office. They could not run for re-election, so voters wouldn’t have had the chance to weigh in on their suitability for office. Trump, however, is in his first term. His inquiry could easily drag into 2020. Which raises the question: Will voters, who so far haven’t been keen on opening impeachment proceedings, want to reserve for themselves the right to decide at the ballot box whether he is fit to hold office?
What will impeachment mean for U.S. foreign policy?
Trump suggested yesterday that the consequences won’t be good, tweeting:
Such an important day at the United Nations, so much work and so much success, and the Democrats purposely had to ruin and demean it with more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage. So bad for our Country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2019
Impeachment will soak up the time and energy of not just the White House, but also of most of official Washington. Whether and how much this will hurt U.S. national interests is impossible to say, and not just because disagreement exists over the merits of Trump’s America First policies. The record of the Nixon and Clinton experiences suggests that is easy to overstate the impact of impeachment. Watergate undoubtedly handcuffed Nixon’s diplomacy, but the country’s main diplomatic challenges—most notably the war in Vietnam—had been set in motion by decisions made long before Watergate. In Clinton’s case, impeachment may have affected what he could do abroad, but not so much that either he or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright bothered to mention it in their memoirs. Of course, Trump is a different kind of president with a dramatically different operating style operating in a different geopolitical environment. So perhaps, as automobile commercials like to state, our mileage may vary.
Can anything be said for certain about impeachment?
Yes, existing partisan divisions on Capitol Hill are going to deepen, as the early and differing reactions to the summary of Trump’s phone call with Zerensky attests. That wouldn’t have been a surprise to the Framers. As Alexander Hamilton observed in Federalist #65, the pursuit of impeachment:
will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties, more or less friendly or inimical, to the accused. In many cases, it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence and interest to one side, or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger, that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
Of course, the fact that turbulence is predictable doesn’t mean it will be enjoyable.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.