Impeachment inquiry begins against Trump – what you need to know
Impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump are moving on to the next stage. This is what you need to know.
What is impeachment?
Impeachment is when a legislative body formally levels charges – which have to be very serious – against a high official of government, including the president.
It does not mean automatic removal from office and is only the first step towards removal.
It is not a criminal trial but a process to remove a high-level official, usually only a president in the US.
What’s happening this week?
Today the curtain goes up on the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump and his dealings with Ukraine. This week we will hear from three witnesses – career public servants who have privately testified that Mr Trump withheld military aid to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rival Joe Biden.
First up: William Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine. He has told investigators that shortly after being approached for the job he learned of a sub foreign policy channel that he believed was undermining US national security interests.
Next up will be George Kent – the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In his testimony he detailed how Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, defied the conventional bipartisan approach toward US support for Ukraine in his effort to push for political investigations.
On Friday it’s the turn of Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine. Mr Giuliani successfully pushed for her to be removed from this role in May after criticising her performance and accusing her of failing to support Mr Trump’s policies.
She testified that she was told to “watch my back” because Mr Giuliani and his associates saw her as an obstacle in achieving their own business interests. These hearings are part of the process of formally charging the president.
How did we get here?
A vocal minority has been calling for Mr Trump’s impeachment pretty much since he took office. Those calls grew during Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian interference and waned at its conclusion. Now cylinders are firing up again.
Why? It all centres around a phone call Mr Trump had with the Ukrainian president in July. One intelligence official was so alarmed by what Mr Trump said that they turned whistleblower and filed a formal complaint.
Since then numerous testimonies have corroborated a narrative that Mr Trump pushed for the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into his 2020 rival Joe Biden. If true, Democrats say it would mean the US president abused the power of his office to influence a foreign country to meddle in the 2020 election.
The view among Democrats is that amounts to an impeachable offence. Mr Trump has admitted speaking about Mr Biden with Ukraine’s leader but insists he acted appropriately.
Once the intelligence committee has wrapped up its investigations and hearings, it will send a report and recommendations to the house judiciary committee, which will then draft any possible articles of impeachment.
That panel would then vote on them and present them to the full House. A full House vote would likely happen quickly with the aim of wrapping up the House side of proceedings before the end of the year.
Any impeachment resolution adopted by the House would have to be watertight to survive in the majority Republican Senate.
The Senate trial is where things would really ignite with dramatic testimony that could ultimately remove Mr Trump from office. But that’s unlikely because nearly all Senate Republicans are firmly behind the president.
Proceedings are governed by an eight-page manual that says the Senate needs to hear articles of impeachment shortly after the House reports them. Members of the House of Representatives present the prosecution case and Mr Trump’s defence would be argued by his own lawyers.
Two thirds of the senate would need to vote against Mr Trump in order to remove him from office. This would be unprecedented.
At this point, only 16 of 47 Senate Democrats and independents publicly support impeaching the president. There is every chance that Mr Trump could be impeached and go on to win a second term in office.
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What’s the political strategy?
Republicans have changed their tune recently. They started off focusing on criticising the process. Now they’re looking a little more at substance.
In the face of a mountain of damaging facts expected in these first public hearings, some have started acknowledging there may have been a quid pro quo, but insisting that it doesn’t establish an impeachable offence.
According to an 18-page leaked staff memo, House Republicans plan to focus on Mr Trump’s mindset (his intent and motive) and intangibles like impeachability, rather than trying to challenge a story that has been supported by multiple witnesses. The memo suggests they will focus on “four key pieces of evidence”.
- That the best evidence of the 25 July call shows no “conditionality or evidence of pressure”
- President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and President Trump have both said there was no pressure on the call
- The Ukrainian government was not aware of a hold on US security assistance at the time of the 25 July call
- President Trump met with President Zelenskiy and the US supplied assistance without Ukraine investigating Mr Trump’s political rivals
What that memo doesn’t acknowledge is that senior officials like Mr Taylor and EU ambassador Gordon Sondland were under the impression a quid pro quo involving aid did exist and they spoke with their Ukrainian counterparts about that.
Democrats by contrast, are banking on these televised hearings being so shocking to the public, that viewers will be quickly convinced the president should be impeached. They know public feeling matters greatly.
House intelligence chair Adam Schiff has picked Mr Taylor, Mr Kent and Ms Yavanonvitch because he thinks they are indisputably compelling, trustworthy and apolitical. He hopes Mr Kent and Mr Taylor will provide a powerful opening and Ms Yavanonvitch, who was the first alleged victim of Rudy Giuliani’s “scheme”, will illicit sympathy.
We’re told Mr Schiff will be keeping quiet, avoiding media and expecting others to do the same. They want to be seen to be taking this incredibly seriously and to find understated ways to counter Republican theatrics.
They also want it dealt with as quickly as possible and in a very focused way, where arguments and evidence is laid out in a way voters can easily understand it. An impeachment process that drags on could seriously backfire.
Does the public want impeachment?
Washington is consumed by impeachment. But very often, what Capitol Hill is obsessed with is not what voters care most about.
There is some indication this time though that people at home are watching what happens closely. Let’s face it, Congress has the potential to oust the man the public chose to put in office.
Some recent polls show President Donald Trump has a loyal core. In most surveys, opposition to impeachment among Republicans remains above 90%. His most ardent followers are white evangelicals.
But in the places that matter the most, he’s looking a lot more vulnerable. According to a Times and Siena College poll, where voters in the six closest states carried by the president in 2016, 50% of registered voters supported the impeachment investigation and 45% opposed it.
Impeachment, even if it was to happen, certainly doesn’t equal removal. In that Times/Sienna poll of swing states, a majority also opposed removing Mr Trump from office – 53% to 43%.
Ultimately, the public look as divided as Congress.
Is there anything in the Joe Biden claims?
After Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, then vice president Biden became Barack Obama’s point man visiting frequently – tasked with tackling corruption.
Around that time his son Hunter took a lucrative position on the board of the country’s largest private gas company, Burisma. At the time it raised concerns of a possible conflict of interest.
Mr Biden argued that his son was a private citizen who made his own decisions. The Obama administration actually supported an investigation into Burisma because the owner had close ties to the recently ousted president.
Separately Mr Biden threatened to cut off US aid if a top prosecutor who was seen as failing to investigate corruption was not removed from office. Mr Trump’s supporters say Mr Biden was actually doing this so that his son would not be investigated.
No evidence has been offered to back this claim which has been called “baseless” by the Biden camp.