As the confrontation between US President Donald Trump and Democrats over Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s Russia report intensifies, talk of impeachment has continued to swirl around Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has so far resisted calls to begin impeachment proceedings. Instead, House committees are aggressively investigating Trump, a Republican, through subpoenas of witnesses and documents.
In an April 22 letter to fellow Democratic politicians, Pelosi urged restraint and patience, insisting that it is “important to know that the facts regarding holding the president accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings”.
She repeated that sentiment on Thursday, saying Democrats will take a step-by-step approach. “We won’t go any faster than the facts take us or any slower,” she said.
But she did say that as Trump continues to stonewall congressional investigations, he is “becoming self-impeachable”.
Trump and his supporters argue the Mueller investigation into the president and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is “case-closed”.
Despite the top Democrats’ effort to tamp down impeachment talk, several Democrats, including some 2020 presidential contenders, want the House to start impeachment proceedings.
Here’s what you need to know about the US impeachment:
1. What is impeachment in the US political system?
The founders of the United States included impeachment in the US Constitution as an option for removal of presidents by Congress.
Impeachment, a concept in English common law, was one of the more hotly debated points during the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Delegates agreed that presidents could be removed if found guilty by Congress of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors”.
Sole authority under the Constitution to bring articles of impeachment is vested in the House of Representatives where proceedings can begin in the Judiciary Committee. If the House approves articles of impeachment, or “impeaches” a president, he or she would then be subject to trial in the US Senate.
2. On what grounds can a president be impeached? How does impeachment work?
Under the Constitution, the president, vice president and “all civil officers of the United States” can be removed from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”.
To begin impeachment proceedings, a House member can introduce an impeachment resolution, or the entire House can vote to initiate an investigation into whether there are grounds for impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee or a special committee will then investigate. The panel votes on whether to bring a vote to the full House. Impeachment in the 435-member House must be approved with a simple majority.
If the House votes to impeach, the matter moves to the Senate, where a trial is held. The chief justice of the US Supreme Court presides over the trial.
A two-thirds majority vote is required in the 100-member Senate to convict and remove a president from office.
The Senate is made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. At least 20 Republicans would have to vote with all Democrats and the two independents to remove the president.
3. Which presidents have been impeached?
Only two US presidents have ever been successfully impeached and in neither instance was the president removed from office. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 in the tumultuous aftermath of the American Civil War; and Bill Clinton in 1998 for issues including his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Both times, the House approved formal charges and impeached the president, only to have the Senate fail to convict and remove him.
The House Judiciary Committee in 1974 voted to recommend impeachment accusing another president, Richard Nixon, of planning to obstruct an investigation in the Watergate scandal. Before the full House could vote on impeachment, Nixon became the only US president ever to resign.
4. Who would become president if Trump was impeached and removed? What would happen to Trump?
A Senate conviction that removed Trump from office would automatically elevate Vice President Mike Pence to become president, completing Trump’s term, which ends on January 20, 2021.
Criminal charges cannot be brought against a sitting president, however, the Constitution does allow for separate criminal charges once a president is removed.
5. What do the Democrats say about impeachment? What does Trump’s team say?
The Democratic leadership has so far tried to tamp down impeachment talk, instead advocating a “methodological” approach.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for his failure to hand over the full, unredacted Mueller report.
Pelosi said, however, that she isn’t going to rush the full House vote on the contempt resolution.
“This is very methodical, it’s very Constitution-based,” the top Democrat told reporters on Thursday. “We won’t go any faster than the facts take us, or any slower than the facts take us.”
Democrats want to see Mueller’s full Russia-Trump investigation report, as well as some of the underlying evidence.
Barr last month released a 448-page redacted version of Mueller’s report on his 22-month investigation into Russian election meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The redacted Mueller report details extensive contacts between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Moscow, as well as the campaign’s expectation of benefiting from Russia’s actions.
It did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian operatives.
The investigation did, however, examine “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations”. Mueller did not conclude that Trump committed obstruction of justice, but did not exonerate him either. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently concluded that Trump did not break the law.
The Department of Justice has accused Democrats of engaging in “inappropriate political theatrics” – an accusation Democrats dismissed.
Hours before the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Barr in contempt, Trump asserted executive privilege to block the release of the Mueller report.
The Trump administration has also blocked staffers and former aides from attending interviews or hearings, as well as having refused to disclose his subpoenaed tax returns.
Top Republicans have declared the Mueller investigation “case closed”.
“This investigation went on for two years,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. “It’s finally over.”
Can the Supreme Court help Trump?
On the question of impeachment, Trump’s personal lawyer said in a recent New York Daily News interview that impeachment would give Trump a boost in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats “can do it if they want to,” Rudy Giuliani said. “Would it politically be the best thing that could happen to the president? Absolutely.”
But he has somewhat backtracked on those comments, telling the New York Times, “Nobody wants to be impeached. I think Clinton would say, even though it worked out to his favour, he would have rather not been impeached.”
Trump himself has falsely said he could turn the Supreme Court if the House moved to impeach him.
“I DID NOTHING WRONG,” Trump tweeted last month. “If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
But the Supreme Court has previously ruled that impeachment authority resides solely with Congress.
Pelosi said she recognised what the Trump administration is trying to do.
“Trump is goading us to impeach him,” she recently said at a Cornell University event.
“That’s what he’s doing,” she said. “Every single day, he’s just like taunting, taunting, taunting because he knows that would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to solidify his base.”
Who’s calling for impeachment?
As Democratic leadership continue to tiptoe around impeachment, a number of more progressive members of Congress have said it’s time for proceedings to begin.
“I believe impeachment is the solution to a constitutional crisis,” Representative Al Green told US media.
|US Representative Rashida Tlaib speaks during a press conference [Saul Loeb/AFP]
Similar calls have also come from Rashida Tlaib, as well as Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
“If any other human being in this country had done what’s documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail,” Warren said during a CNN town hall.
“He serves the whole thing up to the United States Congress and says, in effect, if there’s going to be any accountability, that accountability has to come from the Congress,” Warren said. “And the tool that we are given for that accountability is the impeachment process. This is not about politics; this is about principle.”
6. What do Americans say about impeachment?
The number of Americans who said Trump should be impeached rose five percentage points to 45 percent since mid-April, while more than half said multiple congressional probes of Trump interfered with important government business, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday.
The opinion poll, conducted on Monday, did not make clear whether investigation-fatigued Americans wanted House of Representatives Democrats to pull back on their probes or press forward aggressively and just get impeachment over with.
In addition to the 45 percent pro-impeachment figure, the Monday poll found that 42 percent of Americans said Trump should not be impeached. The rest said they had no opinion.
In comparison, an April 18-19 survey found that 40 percent of all Americans wanted to impeach Trump.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from April 24-29 put the overall support of impeachment at 39 percent.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed stronger support for impeachment among Democrats and independents.
It also showed that 57 percent of adults polled agreed that continued investigations into Trump would interfere with important government business. That included about half of all Democrats and three-quarters of all Republicans.
The poll also found that 32 percent agreed that Congress treated the Mueller report fairly, while 47 percent disagreed.
Trump’s popularity was unchanged from a similar poll that ran last week – 39 percent of adults said they approved of Trump, while 55 percent said they disapproved.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English, throughout the US. It gathered responses from 1,006 adults and had a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about four percentage points.