Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has announced that a formal impeachment inquiry has been opened into President Donald Trump. The announcement comes on the heels of revelations that Trump pressed Ukraine's president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, soon after asking his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to withhold millions in military aid to the country.
"This week, the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically," Pelosi said. "The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections."
So, what happens next? Can Trump be impeached? And, if so, what would happen then?
The U.S. Constitution details who can be impeached (federal officeholders, from cabinet members all the way up to the president) and the methods to be followed. First, the House of Representatives initiates a public inquiry into allegations, as Pelosi has announced, involving hearings to amass evidence. Once that evidence has been gathered, the House votes on whether or not to impeach. (Currently, House Democrats outnumber Republicans 235 to 199.)
While a vote against impeachment ends the process, a vote to impeach just advances the process to the Senate, which organizes the matter for trial, over which the vice president presides. At trial in the Senate, the president would be charged with one or more articles of impeachment. A conviction on any one article would be sufficient for removal. In order to convict, a two-thirds majority vote is required. (Republicans currently hold a 53-45 majority in the Senate, with two independents.)
Under the Constitution, "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." And while "high crimes and misdemeanors" doesn't have a specific definition, it is generally interpreted to refer to indictable criminal offenses, and non-criminal ones as well, including corruption, dereliction of constitutional duty, and violation of limitations on the power of an office.
"No one is above the law," Pelosi said during her announcement. And that goes for the president as well. While executive immunity generally bars a criminal indictment against a sitting president, the Supreme Court has rejected claims of "an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances." Making impeachment the preferred check on presidential wrongdoing.
Articles of impeachment have only been drafted against three U.S presidents: Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and William Jefferson Clinton. (Nixon actually resigned before the full House could vote to approve his articles of impeachment.) The only impeachment proceedings to go to trial were generally divided along party lines, and both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted during Senate trials.
It's possible the same could happen with President Trump. It's also possible that, following the hearings in the House and trial in the Senate, he could be convicted. What then? If at least two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the president is removed, and the vice president takes over, with no opportunity for appeal.
"As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself," Trump tweeted in June of last year. But he probably talked to the wrong legal scholars. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates the President "shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." [Emphasis added.]
And what about the conservative Supreme Court, to which Trump has appointed two justices? Because presidential impeachment is exclusively the domain of the Congress, there is no appeal to the Supreme Court. Even if there were, Trump's two appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, would likely need to recuse themselves, leaving a four-Justice liberal majority.