Ethics and Democracy

Impeachment Hearings: Time to Start the Process

Impeachment is a process, and the time to begin is now.

June 8, 2017. We should all remember this date, because it was the day when former FBI Director James Comey (a Republican) confirmed under oath what many of us already suspected and what the press has reported—that Donald Trump asked him to drop the investigation into disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense. Period. Let’s be clear about what this means: the President of the United States knew that the FBI was investigating his associates, TRIED TO STOP THAT INVESTIGATION, and then fired the person who wouldn’t stop it. This is obstruction of justice, a federal crime, and an impeachable offense. (See our explainer on obstruction of justice here.)

Don’t believe us? Then trust Laurence Tribe, a former Supreme Court clerk, constitutional scholar, and professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. His assessment: “The time has come for Congress to launch an impeachment investigation of President Trump for obstruction of justice.”

Why does impeachment exist? For times like these.

As Americans, we cannot afford to have a President who breaks the law. No one is above the law, not even the President—and the job of the Presidency is too important to trust it to someone who doesn’t respect the basic rules of our democracy.

Impeachment is enshrined in the constitution. James Madison argued impeachment was “indispensable” to protect against the “incapacity, negligence or perfidy” of the president. The Constitution provides that “[t]he 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.”

Yes, obstruction of justice is one of those “high crimes and misdemeanors.” President Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. And the very first article of impeachment against Nixon was similarly obstruction of justice. Obstruction of Justice is absolutely an impeachable offense.

What is Impeachment? It’s a process—a long process.

After Watergate, in July of 1973, a Democratic Member of the House of Representatives introduced H.Res 513, legislation described as “Resolution impeaching Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors.” It took three months for the House Judiciary Committee to even begin considering impeachment. It took more than a year before Nixon left office, before the full House had even voted, and the Senate hadn’t taken any action.

Bottom line: impeachment takes time. So if you want it done, you’ve got to get it started. And, it starts with impeachment hearings. Here’s how the impeachment process works:

The House acts first, then the Senate. Both the House and Senate have a role to play. First, the House decides whether or not to impeach the President (essentially whether to “charge” the president). Each “charge” is referred to as an “article of impeachment.” If the House votes to impeach, then the Senate holds a trial on each article of impeachment against the president.

Impeachment is only the beginning—it’s not a conviction. It’s worth noting here the difference between two terms that are often used interchangeably but do not mean the same thing. Being “impeached” only means that the House of Representatives voted to send articles of impeachment to the Senate for a trial. Being “removed from office” means that the Senate voted to convict the President.

No President has ever been impeached and then convicted by the Senate and removed from office. President Andrew Johnson (in 1868) and Bill Clinton (in 1998/1999) were impeached by the House but acquitted in the Senate; Richard Nixon resigned to avoid being impeached.

Your easy to use, step-by-step impeachment guide:

  1. A Member of the House introduces a House Resolution calling for impeachment. Literally any House member can do this. The legislation will come in the form of a House Resolution (a.k.a. “H. Res” followed by a number). For Nixon, the final resolution was H. Res 803 ; for Clinton, it was H. Res 611. House Resolutions don’t need to be passed by the Senate or signed by Trump—they just have to pass the House.
  2. A committee holds impeachment hearings to investigate. After introduction, the legislation will be referred to a House committee, likely the House Judiciary Committee (as was the case for both Nixon and Clinton). The Judiciary Committee may conduct its own investigation, or accept the investigation of another party. For Nixon, the Judiciary Committee eventually began a months-long investigation. For Clinton, the Judiciary Committee simply accepted an existing investigation conducted by independent counsel Ken Starr.
  3. The committee votes. Once an investigation has concluded, the committee—again, in most cases, House Judiciary—will vote on the article or articles of impeachment. They can do this together as one resolution or separately for each article. In the case of Nixon, the Judiciary Committee approved the articles of impeachment with strong bipartisan support. For Clinton, the Committee approved impeachment mostly on a party line vote.
  4. The full House votes. If the Judiciary Committee approves one or more articles of impeachment, the next step is for the full House to vote either on the resolution or on individual articles. It takes just a simple majority in the House to impeach a President. If that happens, the process moves to the Senate.
  5. The Senate holds a trial. The Senate receives evidence and hears testimony, like in a court trial, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides. Members of the House make the case for impeachment, and the President is defended by his counsel.
  6. The full Senate votes. Once the trial concludes, the Senate meets in closed session to deliberate before it takes a final vote. A two-thirds majority (67 votes if all Senators are present) is required to convict the President and remove him from office. This is an extremely high bar that was set that way intentionally, given the gravity of removing a president from office.

Impeachment is a Political Process: Republicans Won’t Get the Process Started Without Pressure from You

Despite the evidence from Mr. Comey’s testimony that Trump obstructed justice, the hard truth is that Republicans have control of both the House and Senate. Some Republicans did join the call for a special prosecutor, who was appointed on May 17. This would have never happened without the immense pressure from the public and from Indivisible groups around the country. But politically speaking, most Republicans are not yet close to the point where they’ll call for—or even allow—impeachment proceedings to begin. This is especially true for Republican leaders who control the process and have fallen in line with Trump on basically every issue so far.

We Need to Begin the Impeachment Process. What we do know is that Donald Trump obstructed justice. That is enough to begin the impeachment process, and your Representative should be calling for it. 

Until We Get Impeachment, Continue to Resist the Trump Agenda

While we pressure Republicans to begin impeachment hearings, we must continue to oppose Trump’s agenda more broadly. One of the best ways to increase the chances of Trump’s impeachment is to drive a wedge between him and his party, by making it clear that Republicans can’t accomplish their agenda in Congress as long as Trump is President.

Even as new information about the Trump camp’s ties to Russia continues to come to light with each new week, the Administration and its allies in Congress are pushing forward with their terrible legislative agenda. The House is voting to gut financial consumer protections. Mitch McConnell is maneuvering in the Senate to fast track their health care bill. Especially given the dark cloud that now hangs over the Administration, it is more important than ever to stop every piece of the Trump agenda. In doing so, we stop the worst damage to our country and our institutions while ramping up the pressure for Republicans to split with Trump.

What You Can Do to Stand Indivisible

First and foremost, impeachment is a long game. We won’t be getting hearings anytime soon, and even once we do, the impeachment process is likely to take a long time. Call on your Representative to support impeachment resolutions calling for impeachment. An impeachment resolution is step one in the process.

Impeachment won’t happen overnight—it will be a long-term fight. And we will continue to demand that Congress do more, especially as more information comes to light. Until then, we must continue to focus on stopping Republicans and Trump from advancing other parts of their agenda, including repealing the ACA, attacking immigrants and people of color, threatening the environment, repealing consumer financial protections, and attacking reproductive rights, to name only a few. The list of things we need to protect is long, but if we stick together, if we stand indivisible, we will win.