Impeachment is the first step in a two-step process to remove the President of the United States from office. If a majority of representatives in the House of Representatives votes yes on impeachment, then the matter is referred to the Senate for a trial. After a trial, if two-thirds of senators also vote yes, then the would president be removed from office, and the vice president would become the president.
The House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump on Dec. 18, 2019, approving the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in majority votes (230-197 vote on abuse of power; 229-198 vote on obstruction of Congress). The Senate conducted a trial in January and February 2020, and on Feb. 5, 2020, the Senate voted to acquit Trump on both charges (52-48 vote on abuse of power and 53-47 vote on obstruction of Congress). He was the third president to face, and be acquitted by, an impeachment trial.
Previously, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence conducted depositions, held public hearings with key witnesses, and made a public report of its findings in October–November 2019. Then on Dec. 3, 2019, the House Committee on the Judiciary wrote and approved the two articles of impeachment, sending it to the full House for a vote.Charges » Chronology » How Impeachment Works »
Here’s what happened, starting at the beginning.
Ambassador targeted by Ukraine In 2018, President Trump, his associates, and Ukrainian officials began working on a disjoint plan to replace U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. These efforts, or parts of them, were reportedly the idea of Ukraine’s then-chief prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. At a dinner on April 30, 2018, President Trump discussed Yovanovitch with Lev Parnas, an American citizen and businessman born in Ukraine, Parnas’s associate Igor Fruman, and a White House advisor, and Trump directed the advisor to have Yovanovitch fired. However, Yovanovitch was not fired, and efforts to get her replaced continued. Parnas and Fruman made significant illegal campaign contributions in June 2018 to then-Rep. Pete Sessions and related political entities to influence the United States government to replace Yovanovitch, according to federal prosecutors in 2019. Later that year, Parnas’s oddly named company Fraud Guarantee hired Rudy Giuliani, who was also working as President Trump’s personal lawyer, and Giuliani met with Lutsenko about the plan, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. On Jan. 9, 2019 Giuliani asked the State Department to issue Lutsenko’s predecessor as Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, a visa to travel to the United States so that he could provide information about corruption in the United States, according to Kent, possibly referring to purported dirt on Yovanovitch.
Parnas and Fruman were charged with conspiring to violate the ban on foreign donations in federal elections on Oct. 10, 2019 and on Sept. 17, 2020 with fraud related to their company Fraud Guarantee. George Kent, a deputy assistant Secretary of State, testified on Oct. 15, 2019 that Lutsenko had planned a May 2018 meeting with Giuliani, for an unknown purpose, but that the meeting never ocurred, and that they later met in early 2019, and that Giuliani asked the State Department to issue a visa to Shokin.
Political research Throughout 2019, President Trump’s associates and Republican Rep. Devin Nunes sought information to support an unfounded allegation that former Vice President Joe Biden, who was then expected to be President Trump’s 2020 election rival from the Democratic party, had used his position as vice president to support a Ukrainian energy company that his son Hunter Biden worked for by quashing an investigation of the company by Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor at the time, by having Shokin fired, although the accusation of corrupt intent and the claim that Shokin was investigating the energy company are both unsubstantiated. During February to May 2019, Lev Parnas and Rep. Nunes’s staff communicated about their search for dirt about the Bidens. In late March 2019, Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s then-current chief prosecutor, told Parnas he would share information about Biden if Yovanovitch would be removed. And by May 2019, Rudy Giuliani was working on behalf of the President — but for free — and in collaboration with Parnas — who had in the previous year paid him $500,000 — to persuade the State Department and Ukrainian officials to investigate actions by Biden and his son. Giuliani told Fox News on Oct. 2, 2019, “I explored [the accusation] as part of my duty as an attorney to show that the crimes committed, were not by my client, but by Democrats,” and he tied his work to oust Ambassador Yovanovitch to his work to discredit Biden in an interview with The New Yorker.
Lutsenko, the Ukrainian chief prosecutor who succeeded the ousted Shokin, said there was no evidence Biden or his son committed a crime. George Kent, a deputy assistant Secretary of State, testified on Oct. 15, 2019 that the State Department considered both Shokin and Lutsenko to be corrupt prosecutors. Parnas and Lutsenko continued to discuss the information about Biden as late as June 2019, and Giuliani continued to seek information from Ukrainian sources as late as December 2019 — long past the ousting of Yovanovitch. Trump’s associates also pursued an accusation of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election based on a conspiracy theory that a cybersecurity company in Ukraine was involved in the leak of Democratic National Committee emails that year, but no such company actually existed. Although Kent and other government officials warned that Vice President Biden had the appearance of a conflict of interest when taking official actions regarding Ukraine, a Senate committee report published in September 2020 about this failed to find that Biden acted improperly at any time but re-raised suspicions about his son Hunter.
Ambassador fired Then on May 20, 2019, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was fired allegedly for not pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden.
This was first reported on Oct. 3, 2019.
Security aid funding halted The United States was set to provide $391 million to Ukraine in 2019 to defend itself from aggression by Russia, which in 2014 annexed the part of Ukraine called Crimea. (Much of that aid actually goes to United States companies providing defense products and services.) On July 3, 2019, President Trump ordered a hold on security aid funding to Ukraine with no explanation given to Ukraine or U.S. diplomats, but White House staff were told that it was because of a general concern about corruption in Ukraine. But because the aid was set in law and procedures for clearing the aid had already completed, including a Department of Defense certification that Ukraine had met anticorruption goals, officials discussed whether withholding the aid violated the law. In October 2019, Trump and the White House gave explanations that included wanting European countries to do more to support Ukraine and pressuring Ukraine to address broad corruption issues.
This was first reported on Aug. 28, 2019. Jennifer Williams, an advisor to Vice President Pence, testified on Nov. 7, 2019 that she was told that security aid was withheld on July 3, 2019. David Holmes, a foreign service officer working in Ukraine, testified that “the order had come from the President” and that the embassy in Ukraine found out on July 18. Tim Morrison, a White House advisor, also testified that the order had come from the Pressident and that the concern was about corruption generally. Williams also testified that the Department of Defense certified that the aid met U.S. policy goals with respect to corruption in Ukraine prior to July 3, 2019 and that the aid is spent significantly on U.S. defnese contractors, and Morrison testified that the Department of Defense believed it may have been illegal to withhold the security aid since the aid was specified in law. The security aid for 2019 was funded in part through the Department of State ($141M) and in part through the Department of Defense ($250M), and those parts were ordered withheld on July 3 and July 12, 2019, respectively.
The first “quid pro quo” Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor who in 2018 was appointed ambassador to the European Union (of which Ukraine is not a part), was given some additional responsibility for relations with Ukraine after the position of ambassador to Ukraine became vacant. Then Sondland told Ukraine on July 10, 2019 that an investigation into the energy company that Biden’s son worked for and alleged election interference by Ukraine in the 2016 election was a precondition for a coveted White House visit by Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump Administration officials continued to work on this deal throughout the summer in consultation with the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, at the direction of the President. Giuliani separately communicated the demand for the investigation to Ukrainian officials. On July 25, 2019 (before the Trump-Zelenskyy call), volunteer special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker told Ukraine President Zelenskyy’s top adviser, in a text message, “assuming President Z convinces Trump he will investigate . . . we will nail down date for visit to Washington.” Ukraine agreed. In late August 2019, Sondland got approval from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, White House advisers, and Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, all testified that an announcement of an investigation into the energy company tied to Biden’s son was a precondition for the White House visit. Vindman testified about Sondland’s communication to Ukraine. Sondland testified later that they intended to (but ultimately did not) ask Ukraine to announce that the investigation would be opened, and denied at first that it was in exchange for the White House visit, but later in his Nov. 20, 2019 public testimony called the request a “quid pro quo.” Volker provided the text messages to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 3, 2019. Vindman’s testimony was on Oct. 29, 2019. Sondland testified privately on Oct. 17, 2019 and publicly on Nov. 20, 2019. In his public testimony, he said that Giuliani separately communicated the demand to Ukraine, that Ukraine agreed to the demand, and that Sondland updated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump-Zelenskyy call On the morning of July 25, 2019, President Trump likely saw a Fox News poll showing him losing to Biden in the 2020 presidential election. About an hour later, in a call between President Trump and Ukraine’s new President Zelenskyy, Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate alleged actions by Biden (“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution [into the Ukrainian energy company] so if you can look into it...,” Trump said on the call) and to locate the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s 2016 email server (“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said), and to do both investigations in collaboration with Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer. (Although a consensus of nonpartisan and bipartisan investigations found that Russia hacked the DNC email server in an effort to help Trump win the 2016 election, Trump has pursued a discredited theory that it was hackers in Ukraine who helped him, not Russia itself.) Later that day, the White House formally ordered the Pentagon to hold their portion of the security aid, a temporary and secret process that was repeated throughout the summer. Zelenskyy replied on the call that they will “look into the situation,” and the next day, a top aid to Zelenskyy told Ambassador Sondland that they would do an investigation. Text messages among ambassadors after the call show a debate over whether Trump was withholding aid to Ukraine and an invitation to visit the White House in exchange for these investigations. Ukraine found out about the hold on security aid in the days after the July 25 call, and Parnas, the businessman, said he had told Zelenskyy’s associates in May 2019 and at Giuliani’s direction that the President would withhold security aid unless Ukraine announced it would begin these investigations, but others denied this. Zelenskyy could have concluded that the requested investigation and the security aid were linked — either because of Parnas’s message, the identical conditions placed by Ambassador Sondland on a White House visit, or by implication from the President’s request and the timing of the withheld aid.
On Sept. 25, 2019 the White House released a summary of the Trump-Zelenskyy call. Ambassador Kurt Volker provided the text messages to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 3, 2019. David Holmes, a foreign service officer working in Ukraine at the time, testified that Ukraine agreed to do an investigation.
Whistleblower complaint and Bolton meeting A government employee whose identity has been withheld filed a confidential whistleblower complaint on Aug. 12, 2019 alleging the President abused his power for political gain by targeting a potential election opponent. The complaint documented the Trump-Zelenskyy phone call, efforts to restrict access to records related to the call, and it connected this to Giuliani’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to open the investigations — all of which were later confirmed by the White House or by the testimony of impeachment inquiry witnesses. In the following weeks, Trump-appointed officials disagreed about whether to share the complaint with Congress and ultimately withheld it. In late August 2019, President Trump learned of the existence of the whistleblower complaint. (Prior to filing the complaint, the whistleblower approached the House Intelligence Committee, possibly for advice, and the committee recommended that the whistleblower follow procedures set in law for whistleblowers inside intelligence agencies.) On or about Aug. 16, 2019, President Trump told John Bolton, the President’s top foreign policy advisor at the time, that the security aid and the Biden investigation were linked, according to a book draft by Bolton leaked five months later, but President Trump later denied this happened. (Bolton resigned or was fired on Sept. 9, 2019.)
The existence of the complaint was not known to the general public until Sept. 21, 2019, when key elements of the complaint were leaked to the media. The White House made the complaint available on Sept. 26, 2019. On Sept. 27, 2019, the White House confirmed that the Trump-Zelenskyy call summary was placed in a computer system meant for classified records, and in his Oct. 31, 2019 testimony, Tim Morrison, a White House Advisor, said that the White House stored Trump-Zelenskyy call record in the classified system because of a miscommunication between White House staff about how to restrict access to it.
Congress asks about security aid In late August 2019, Republican members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees began seeking information about the withheld security aid: On Aug. 22, 2019, Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, asked the White House why it “put a pause” on the security aid and the next day, committee member Rep. Paul Cook and Sen. Rob Portman, both Republicans, asked the same question to Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s chief of staff, and another White House official, respectively. Rep. Cook wrote that the paused aid could “weaken a major premise of the National Defense Strategy.” On Aug. 26, 2019, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked the Department of Defense the same question. It is not known how they found out about the held security aid — it was not yet publicly known. Then on Aug. 28, 2019, POLITICO reported for the first time about the held security aid — but not a link between the aid and the requested investigations, which were not yet publicly known. On Aug. 31, 2019, Sen. Ron Johnson asked the President about whether the security aid was conditioned on the requested investigations, and Johnson later told The Wall Street Journal that in their conversation the President denied that there was a condition.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s question was first reported on Jan. 2, 2020.
The second “quid pro quo” On Sept. 1, 2019, Ambassador Sondland told Ukraine that security aid would be withheld unless Ukraine made a public statement that it would investigate the energy company that Biden’s son worked for and “2016,” referring to the 2016 hack of the DNC’s email server, following a directive given by President Trump, and on Sept. 7, 2019, the President further directed that Zelenskyy himself must make the statement. Zelenskyy planned to make the statement on CNN on Sept. 13, 2019.
Ambassador Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, a White House advisor, testified that the aid was in exchange for Ukraine investigating the energy company, on Oct. 22, 2019 and Oct. 31, 2019, respectively. Gordon Sondland initially denied that an investigation was contingent on security aid in his Oct. 17, 2019 testimony, saying the President told him “There is no quid pro quo.” But on Nov. 5, 2019, Sondland revised his testimony, saying that security aid had indeed been contingent on announcing an investigation into the energy company that Biden’s son worked for and “2016,” referring to the 2016 hack of the DNC’s email server. Morrison further testified that Sondland told him shortly after the Sept. 1, 2019 meeting that the link between aid and the investigation was President Trump’s position, and that Sondland told him on Sept. 7, 2019 that President Trump wanted Zelenskyy himself to make the statement. In his Nov. 20, 2019, Sondland testified that he told Vice President Pence on Aug. 30, 2019 that he believed the aid was tied to the investigations into the Ukrainian energy company and the DNC email server.
Investigation begins On Sept. 5, 2019, The Washington Post reported for the first time a possible link between the cut security aid and an investigation into Biden. Then on Sept. 9, 2019 the House Intelligence, Foreign Relations, and Oversight committees, all led by Democrats, announced an investigation into President Trump’s requests to Zelenskyy on the July 25, 2019 call, which had been made public by the Ukrainian government but not yet by the White House, and the committees accused Trump of withholding the security aid for political reasons. On the same day, the government office the whistleblower complaint was filed with notified the House Intelligence committee of the existence of the whistleblower complaint but not its allegations. (At this time, few facts were known publicly about the events in this chronology — the existence of the whistleblower complaint would not become publicly known until several weeks later.)
Restoration of security aid On Sept. 11, 2019, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) met with the President and Vice President to urge the President to lift the hold on the security aid, likely conveying pressure from legislators in Congress who did not yet know for sure about the investigations the President asked Ukraine to do but likely believed that by withholding aid the White House was wavering in its support for Ukraine against Russia. (He likely also read the Sept. 5, 2019 Washington Post article and it is possible he confronted the President about it.) Immediately after the meeting, the withheld security aid was ordered restored. Even after the aid was restored, Ambassador Sondland still believed as late as Sept. 13, 2019 that Zelenskyy was going to make the statement on CNN, according to the testimony of David Holmes, the foreign service officer. Ultimately, Zelenskyy did not make the statement on Sept. 13, but on Oct. 4, 2019, Ukraine said it would open the investigation.
Because the federal government allocates funding in yearly increments with fiscal years ending at the end of each September, after a Sept. 15, 2019 deadline to report spending to Congress, the funding for the aid would have expired and aid would not have been able to be restored without a new law passed by Congress. A small amount of the security aid did miss the deadline and Congress passed a bill, which Trump signed into law on Sept. 27, 2019, extending the deadline to release the remainder of the aid. Morrison testified about Zelenskyy’s success implementing corruption reforms and a Sept. 15, 2019 deadline for releasing the aid. Holmes testified on Nov. 15, 2019.
The reason for the order to restore the security aid was never conclusively determined, but there are many possible explanations:
Gordon Sondland’s Oct. 17, 2019 Testimony & Nov. 5, 2019 Revised Statement [released Nov. 5, 2019]
Impeachment inquiry On Sept. 21, 2019, key elements of the whistleblower complaint were leaked to the media. On Sept. 24, 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, announced an inquiry into the impeachment of President Trump, saying that "the President has admitted to asking the President of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically."
Release of documents The next day on Sept. 25, 2019 the White House released a summary of the Trump-Zelenskyy call. And after the Senate and House voted unanimously on Sept. 24-25 on non-binding resolutions demanding access to the whistleblower complaint, and minutes before the Director of National Intelligence’s Sept. 26, 2019 appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, the White House made the complaint available to Congress, which then made it available to the public.
Text messages released On Oct. 3, 2019, special envoy Kurt Volker, who had participated in the text messages, was interviewed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a closed session. Volker provided the text messages between U.S. ambassadors, which were then made public by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Additionally, the reason why Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was fired earlier in the year was first reported. And, President Trump asked Ukraine to investigate Biden in a press conference on the White House lawn.
Obstruction The House Committee on Oversight subpoenaed a slew of documents from White House staff, including Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and requested documents from Vice President Mike Pence without a subpoena. In response, the White House sent a letter to the House on Oct. 8, 2019 stating that it will not cooperate with the subpoenas or the impeachment inquiry because, they say, the House is not affording the President due process rights as he would have in a criminal trial — but the Constitution is clear that an impeachment is not a criminal trial. Refusal to cooperate with subpoenas expectedly became an impeachment charge, as it was in the case of President Richard Nixon.
Public investigation On Oct. 31, 2019, the House passed an impeachment resolution retroactively making the impeachment investigation approved by the full House, rather than just efforts by committees, and outlining its next stages. It required at least one open hearing in which Democrats and Republicans were given equal time to question witnesses, and it allowed deposition transcripts to be published at the discretion of the House Intelligence Committee — all of which ocurred next. Republicans previously protested a lack of transparency in the impeachment investigation, but no Republicans voted for the resolution.
House resolution setting procedures for remainder of the impeachment inquiry (adopted Oct. 31, 2019)
Depositions Beginning in October 2019, congressional committees conducted 19 private interviews and briefings with Trump Administration officials. Ambassador Taylor said in his opening statement on Oct. 22, 2019 that Volker, Sondland, Secretary Rick Perry, Sen. Ron Johnson, and Giuliani began an “irregular” circumvention of normal State Department relations with Ukraine to push investigations related to Biden and the 2016 hack of the DNC email server. Private interviews are a standard procedure for committee investigations, especially when national security interests are involved, and the full House most recently re-authorized their use on Jan. 9, 2019. Both parties participated in the interviews. Transcripts of the depositions were made available to the public within several weeks after the deposition (read them all).
Public hearings & report The House Committee on Intelligence held public hearings between Nov. 13, 2019 and Nov. 21, 2019. Little new information was revealed as the transcripts of the private depositions of the witnesses had already been made publicly available and were widely reported on. No witness testified that President Trump himself directed that either the White House visit or the security aid be conditioned on the two requested investigations, but that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, made the directive on Trump’s behalf instead — leaving it unclear if the President desired a quid pro quo. Nevertheless, most witnesses testified that the President’s requests alone were improper, whether or not they were a part of a quid pro quo. On Dec. 3, 2019, the Intelligence Committee released its report of findings, which accused the President of soliciting foreign help for his 2020 reelection, withholding from Ukraine official government actions to do so, and obstructing the impeachment investigation.
Defense pursues Biden allegation In December 2019, Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, met in Ukraine with Ukraine lawmaker Andriy Derkach seeking to resume an investigation into the unsubstantiated allegation that Biden, as vice president, acted corruptly. Derkach had documents he claimed exposed corruption by Biden and much later audio recordings, all of which may have been fake. Derkach said around the time of his meeting with Giuliani that he sent information to Rep. Devin Nunes and other Republican members of Congress. In September 2020, Derkach was designated by the Trump Administration as a “Russian agent.”
Impeachment charges On Dec. 13, 2019, the House Committee on the Judiciary ended the impeachment inquiry by approving two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The abuse of power article charged President Trump of having “solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 United States Presidential election” for “personal political benefit” by asking Ukraine to perform the two investigations mentioned above. The article also charged elements of extortion: that the President “acting both directly and through his agents” made a White House visit and the security aid conditioned on the investigations. The obstruction article was based on the President’s directives to staff and agencies not to comply with congressional subpoenas that sought information and testimony related to the impeachment inquiry. The committee also published a report with additional details. More about the charges...
The committee published a draft of the charges on Dec. 10, 2019 and spent about 12 hours debating the articles before a vote.
Impeachment The House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump on Dec. 18, 2019, approving the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — both of the two articles of impeachment that had been put forward. The articles of impeachment were voted on in separate majority votes, with most Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against. The vote tallies were 230-197 on abuse of power and 229-198 on obstruction of Congress. After an unusual delay during which Democrats attempted but failed to negotiate with Senate Republicans about the procedures for a Senate trial, including whether any witnesses would be called to obtain new evidence, the House voted on Jan. 15, 2020 to send the impeachment to the Senate, the final procedural step before the Senate trial could begin.
Trump tweets possible whistleblower’s name On Dec. 27, 2019, President Trump retweeted a post that alleged the name of the anonymous whistleblower. Federal law makes it illegal for officials to retaliate against government employees that follow whistleblower procedures, and Trump Administration officials have said that the process was followed. The law, however, may not apply to the President, who does not know who the whistleblower is.
Trial begins On Jan. 16, 2020, the Senate formally began consideration of the articles of impeachment. On Jan. 18, 2020, President Trump responded in writing to the charges (see our explanation of the charges for details).
Facts emerge during trial The same day the trial began and in the days ahead, many new facts and allegations came to light. The Government Accountability Office, which is a nonpartisan government agency that works for Congress, issued a report that the Trump Administration violated the law by delaying the Department of Defense’s portion of the security aid for Ukraine. Parnas and Fruman, the businessmen involved in the schemes to oust Ambassador Yovanovich and find information about Biden, shared text messages and then a video involving the President Trump and others (discussed above). And John Bolton, the President’s top foreign policy advisor during the summer of 2019, said the President linked the security aid to the Biden investigation in a leaked draft of his upcoming book, which the President consistently denied.
Trial ends with acquittal The Senate trial continued into February. Legislators from the House of Representatives, called “House managers,” presented the case for impeachment, while White House lawyers presented President Trump’s defense. In an expected but highly anticipated vote, on Jan. 31, 2020 the Senate decided by one vote not to hear from any witnesses and to proceed to a final vote on the impeachment. On Feb. 5, 2020, the Senate acquitted President Trump 52-48 on abuse of power and 53-47 on obstruction of Congress.
Previous impeachment votes This was not the first time impeachment of President Trump was proposed — in fact, the House of Representatives had already voted on impeachment three times before, rejecting impeachment each of those times. In December 2017 the House voted 58 to 364 and in January 2018 the House voted 66 to 355 against impeachment based on Trump’s equivocating comments after the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, Virginia and his calls as a presidential candidate to ban all Muslim immigration. In July 2019, the House voted 95 to 332 against impeachment based on Trump’s racist tweet that four congresswomen should “go back” to where they came from. [See how representatives’ votes changed.]
The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to impeach — or charge — a president and other government officials for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House impeached President Donald Trump for the charges discussed below.
Although treason is defined in the Constitution and bribery is defined by a criminal statute, “high crimes and misdemeanors” was left open to interpretation. Based on historical statements by framers of the Constitution and subsequent practice by Congress, impeachment is not limited to criminal acts. Courts have also determined that Congress’s choice to impeach and remove an official is not subject to review by courts. Therefore, Congress may remove a president or official for any reason or no reason at all.
Instead of looking at what’s legal (since any basis for impeachment and removal is legal), one can also look at what’s normal. President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1867 over his firing of his Secretary of War — the House of Representatives viewed the action as a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, while Johnson considered the Act unconstitutional. The Senate found Johnson not guilty. (Interestingly, the Tenure of Office Act was later repealed, and the Supreme Court took Johnson’s position in a similar case in the next century.) The House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice related to a matter unrelated to his official duties and for which there was no underlying crime. The Senate found Clinton not guilty. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that President Richard Nixon be impeached for obstructing an investigation into criminal activities by his administration and re-election campaign, abuse of power, and not complying with subpoenas. Nixon resigned before the full House took any action.
The House of Representatives impeached President Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors” based on the two charges discussed below:
Article I of the articles of impeachment is “abuse of power.” This charge alleges that President Trump “solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 United States Presidential election” for “personal political benefit” by pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and a discredited theory of 2016 election interference by Ukraine:
Foreign assistance in the election
The White House has said that in a July 25, 2019 phone call, President Trump asked Ukraine president Volodymr Zelenskyy for a “favor” to investigate the President’s chief political opponent at the time, former vice president Joe Biden (“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution [into the Ukrainian energy company that paid his son] so if you can look into it...,” Trump said on the call) and to locate the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s 2016 email server (“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said on the call). The President asked Zelenskyy to coordinate the investigations with the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who told Fox News on Oct. 2, 2019, “I explored [the accusation] as part of my duty as an attorney to show that the crimes committed, were not by my client, but by Democrats.”
Trump and his associates accuse Biden of using his position as vice president, around 2016, to help a Ukrainian energy company which hired his son, although the accusation is unsubstantiated. Although the President has said he asked Zelenskyy for a legitimate investigation into corrupt acts by Biden, whether or not Biden acted improperly is not actually at issue. The President’s motivation is the central component of this charge.
The President’s focus on domestic issues related to the 2016 presidential election (in which he won) and his most likely 2020 presidential election opponent, and not any other corruption in Ukraine, and the involvement of the President’s personal lawyer who said he is pursuing a partisan resolution on these issues, suggest the President’s motivation may have been political.
Foreign entities are prohibited by law from making contributions to political campaigns, including by providing favors of material value. Abuse of power is also a crime. However, the articles of impeachment do not specifically allege a violation of any particular criminal statute.
The President’s Jan. 18, 2020 response denied that the President’s motivation was personal and claimed that because the articles of impeachment do not allege that a specific criminal statute was violated, the charges are constitutionally invalid.
Extortion by withholding security aid
The article alleges that the President “acting both directly and through his agents,” meaning through his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, made a White House visit and security aid “conditioned” on the investigations, with “corrupt motives,” meaning for personal gain. The article of impeachment also alleges that “President Trump also sought to pressure the Government of Ukraine” to perform the investigations. This is, then, an allegation of extortion. Extortion is an accepted practice in foreign policy, however, and what makes this an impeachable charge is not that it would be extortion, but that it was with “corrupt motives.”
One of the President’s foreign policy goals has been to get European countries to step up their support for military security, rather than relying on the United States. According to the White House, in the July 25, 2019 Trump-Zelenskyy phone call, the President told Zelenskyy that he thought the United States’s security aid to Ukraine made the nations’ relationship not “reciprocal,” and then in his next sentence asked Zelenskyy for the “favor” described above. Trump told Zelenskyy, “it’s very important that you do it.” Although not stated directly during the call, Zelenskyy may have understood the President as asking Ukraine to make the relationship reciprocal by performing the favor in exchange for something else.
Prior to the call, on July 10, 2019, Ambassador Gordon Sondland told a high-ranking Ukrainian official that a previously extended invitation for Zelenzyy to meet President Trump at the White House was on the condition that Ukraine investigate Joe Biden, and Sondland testified that Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, separately communicated the demand for the investigation to Ukrainian officials. On Sept. 1, 2019, Sondland told Ukrainian officials that the security aid was withheld on the same condition — although Zelenskyy may have already came to that conclusion in late July or August. Lev Parnas, the businessman and associate of President Trump’s personal lawyer, said he had also told Zelenskyy’s associates in May 2019 that the President would withhold security aid unless Ukraine announced it would begin these investigations, but others denied this. Zelenskyy likely understood by late July that both the White House visit and the security aid were likely contingent on the requested investigations.
There is no hard evidence that Sondland’s communications to Ukraine were at the direction of the President, and there is little evidence substantiating President’s motivation for withholding the security aid and White House visit. On or about Aug. 16, 2019, President Trump told John Bolton, the President’s top foreign policy advisor at the time, that the security aid and the Biden investigation were linked, according to a book draft by Bolton leaked five months Later, but President Trump later denied this happened.
The President’s Jan. 18, 2020 response denied that the President’s motivation was personal and noted that the President told Sondland and Sen. Ron Johnson that the security aid was not withheld for any reason related to the requested investigations.
The Senate acquitted the President on this charge.
Article II of the articles of impeachment is “obstruction of Congress.” In October 2019, the White House sent a letter to the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry stating that it would not respond to the committees’ subpoenas because, it said, the House was not affording the President due process rights as he would have in a criminal trial, such as the ability to question witnesses. (The metaphor does not hold, since an impeachment inquiry is not a criminal trial and is more parallel to a police investigation prior to charges being filed, in which would-be defendants have no such rights. When the committees provided the President an opportunity to participate during the public hearings, the President declined.) Failure to comply with a congressional subpoena is a crime, and refusal to cooperate with subpoenas was a proposed impeachment charge in the case of President Richard Nixon.
The President’s Jan. 18, 2020 response claimed that because the articles of impeachment do not allege that a specific criminal statute was violated, the charges are constitutionally invalid. Additionally, the response claimed that the House of Representatives’s subpoenas were not properly issued and that the President’s closest advisors have an “absolute” immunity from subpoenas (which the Supreme Court has ruled does not exist).
The Senate acquitted the President on this charge.
Abuse of power, extortion, and obstruction of Congress are all crimes under the law. But because impeachment need not be for violation of specific criminal statutes, articles of impeachment traditionally do not charge volations of particular statutory crimes. It was up to the Senate to decide whether the actions by the President described in the articles of impeachment meet the Constitution’s bar for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The House did not include the following which had been discussed by experts as other potential charges:
Misuse of funds Because the security aid for Ukraine was set in law, and procedures for clearing the aid had already been completed by the President’s own advisors, including a Department of Defense certification, withholding the aid violated the Impoundment Control Act, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office published on Jan. 16, 2020. The 70-day hold on the security aid may have violated the law’s requirement that spending not be delayed by more than 45 days (more | more | more) and not for the limited reasons permitted by the Impoundment Control Act. The House Committee on Intelligence’s report alleged that the law was violated, but this allegation was not included in the House Judicary Committee’s articles of impeachment.
Coverup – Mishandling records The White House’s record of the July 25, 2019 Trump-Zelenskyy phone call was filed in a location meant for highly classified materials, the White House confirmed, even though the call did not involve classified information, in order to restrict access to it. In his Oct. 31, 2019 testimony, Tim Morrison, a White House Advisor, said that the White House stored Trump-Zelenskyy call record in the classified system because of a miscommunication between White House staff about how to restrict access to it to prevent the call from becoming a political issue — confirming that the action was both unusual and with the intent to restrict access. It was also reported that a transcript of a call with China was placed in the same system. Several laws including the Presidential Records Act require presidential records like the call record to be preserved but may not require that the records be stored in any particular electronic system.
Coverup – Withholding Whistleblower Report, Retaliation A federal employee submitted a confidential complaint to his superiors on Aug. 12, 2019, and key elements of the complaint were leaked to the media — not by the whistleblower — and made public by the White House in the months that followed. Although the whistleblower report was deemed by a Trump-appointed nonpartisan civil servant to be credible (and, indeed, the key allegations in the report were confirmed by the White House and other officials), it was withheld from Congress by a Trump-appointed political appointee, the Director of National Intelligence, possibly in violation of existing law that requires that credible complaints be forwarded confidentially to Congress. Federal law also prohibits federal agencies from retaliating against whistleblowers, in order to encourage whistleblowers to come forward. The President repeatedly called for the whistleblower’s identity to be revealed, possibly in violation of whistleblower protection law.
Emoluments According to the White House, in the July 25, 2019 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine president Volodymr Zelenskyy, Zelenskyy said he had stayed at the President’s Trump Tower property on his last visit to the United States, among other thanks and praise, to which the President responded positively. Since the President personally benefits from business at his properties, foreign leaders’ stays at his properties may be a constitutionally prohibited emolument.
Impeachment is the first step in the Constitutional process for Congress to remove the president or other government officers. Although the Constitution sets a broad two-step process for impeachment and removal, there are many steps that have evolved from previous times impeachment and removal have been used on lower government officers, such as judges. No president has ever been removed from office.
Below you’ll find a simplified timeline of how impeachment and removal works, and some links to research reports that provide more detailed information.
① Impeachment Inquiry On Sept. 24, 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives will move forward with an official impeachment inquiry. This announcement alone is enough to begin official impeachment proceedings, starting with the directive that six House committees continue their investigations of the President “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”
② Investigative Authority In the cases of Presidents Nixon and Clinton, a resolution was necessary to grant the House Judiciary Committee with authorities to conduct an investigation into impeachment. However, under the current House rules, the committee already has those authorities.
③ Committee Reports After investigating, committees will report their findings to the House as a whole. In the past, the House Judiciary Committee has voted on whether to recommend impeachment and has reported an impeachment resolution with specific allegations of misconduct. Each investigating committee may report separate findings.
④ Vote on Impeachment The House would then vote on an impeachment resolution containing articles of impeachment, which are the charges of misconduct. This vote only requires a simple majority for passage. If passed, the subject of the inquiry is impeached — which means the matter is referred next to the Senate.
⑤ Preparation for a Trial If the House chooses to impeach, there will be a trial in the Senate to determine if the President is guilty. To start this process, the House will select “managers” to present evidence to the Senate and to subpoena witnesses, and the Senate will issue a writ of summons to the impeached official to appear.
⑥ Trial The trial is roughly analogous to a criminal court trial, with the House managers playing the role of the prosecution, the Senate as the jury, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as the judge, and the impeached official is the defendant. However, the Constitution is clear that it is not a criminal trial, since the standards for evidence and conviction are up to the Senate.
⑦ Deliberation Similar to a jury, the Senate meets in closed session to deliberate the substance of the trial.
⑧ Vote on Conviction Finally, the Senate votes on each article of impeachment separately. These votes require a ⅔rd majority to convict, which results in removal from office. The Senate may also vote on whether the convicted official becomes disqualified from holding a government position again, for which only a simple majority is required.
⑨ Judicial Review Impeachment proceedings have been challenged in federal court on a number of occasions. In the unlikely event that the president is impeached and the Senate convicts him, there may be lawsuits to appeal the conviction. However, courts have said in the past that Congress’s power to impeach is broad and in many cases is not subject to judicial review.
These research reports provide additional information about the impeachment process.
Impeachment and Removal (Congressional Research Service; Oct. 29, 2015)
The Impeachment Process in the House of Representatives (Congressional Research Service; Aug. 12, 2019)
Congressional Resolutions on Presidential Impeachment: A Historical Overview (Congressional Research Service; Sept. 16, 1998)
Constitution Annotated: Art II., Sec. 4, Impeachment (Congressional Research Service)