An impeachment inquiry is a process in the House of Representatives to determine whether to vote on impeachment and, if so, on what grounds. If the inquiry leads to a vote on impeachment, and if a majority of representatives vote yes, then the president is impeached, which only means that the matter is referred to the Senate for a trial. After that, if two-thirds of senators also vote yes, only then would the president be removed from office, and the vice president would become the president.
Democrats and Republicans both generally now agree on the facts — that President Trump asked Ukraine to investigate an election rival — but disagree on whether that action warrants impeachment.
Six House committees — including the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight committees — will submit what they consider evidence of impeachable acts to the Judiciary committee which may then draw up charges, called articles of impeachment.Read Possible Charges » How Impeachment Works »
Text messages between ambassadors Taylor and Sondland and special envoy Volker (July 25-Sept. 9, 2019; released Oct. 3, 2019)
Whistleblower Complaint (Aug. 12, 2019; released Sept. 26, 2019)
Trump-Zelenskyy Call Summary (July 25, 2019; released Sept. 24, 2019)
Ambassador fired On May 20, 2019, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was fired allegedly for not pushing Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, President Trump’s chief 2020 election rival at the time, and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump and his associates accuse Biden of using his position as vice president to help a Ukrainian energy company which made payments to his son, although the accusation is unsubstantiated.
An alleged “quid” On July 18, 2019, President Trump ordered a hold on military aid to Ukraine.
Incriminating texts In a series of text messages between July 19 and Sept. 9, 2019, volunteer special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Ambassadors Gordon Soland and Bill Taylor discussed a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine President Zelenskyy. Prior to the Trump-Zelenskyy call, Volker told Zelenskyy’s top adviser, “assuming President Z convinces Trump he will investigate . . . we will nail down date for visit to Washington.” Texts following the call show a debate between the ambassadors over whether Trump was withholding aid to Ukraine and an invitation to visit the White House in exchange for an investigation into Joe Biden.
Trump-Zelenskyy call In the July 25, 2019 call between President Trump and Ukraine President Zelenskyy, Trump urged Zelenskyy to investigate alleged actions by Joe Biden and to locate the Democratic National Committee’s 2016 email server (which was hacked by Russia in an effort to help the President win the 2016 election), and to do both investigations in collaboration with the President’s personal lawyer.
Whistleblower complaint A government employee filed a confidential whistleblower complaint on Aug. 12, 2019, documenting the Trump-Zelenskyy phone call, efforts to restrict access to records related to the call, and the events leading up to the call. The existence of the complaint was not made public until late September. In the following weeks, Trump-appointed officials disagreed about whether to share the complaint with Congress and ultimately withheld it.
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 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 The text messages between U.S. ambassadors were released by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 3, 2019. On the same day, special envoy Kurt Volker, who had participated in the texts, was also interviewed by the same committee in a closed session — Democrats and Republicans have given inconsistent accounts of the substance of the interview. Additionally, the reason why Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was fired earlier in the year was first reported.
An alleged “quo” On Oct. 4, 2019, Ukraine said it would open an investigation into the Bidens.
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 could likely become another impeachment charge, as it was in the case of President Richard Nixon.
Yovanovitch deposition On Oct. 11, 2019, Marie Yovanovitch gave closed-door testimony to three House committees. In her opening statements obtained by the Associated Press, she said she was ousted “based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Previous impeachment votes This is not the first time impeachment of President Trump was proposed — in fact, the House of Representatives has already voted on impeachment three times, rejecting impeachment each time. 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.” (If the House votes to impeach, the charges go to the Senate for a trial to determine if the official should be removed from office. See How Impeachment Works.) Below we list some of the charges that the House of Representatives may consider.
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.
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 and to locate the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s 2016 email server, and on Oct. 3, 2019, President Trump suggested Ukraine and China should open an investigation during a press conference. The President asked Zelenskyy to coordinate the investigations with the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Although framed as an official investigation into corruption, the focus on the President’s political opponents and the involvement of the President’s personal lawyer suggest the President’s intent was political. Foreign entities are prohibited by law from making contributions to political campaigns, including by providing favors of material value, and an impeachment charge could be based on a violation of law or perceived norms for foreign interference in elections.
Extortion or Quid Pro Quo 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. Shortly before the call, the President had halted that security aid and postponed a potential visit by Zelenskyy to the White House. Although not stated in clear words on the call, the President and Zelenskyy likely understood the President as asking Ukraine to make the relationship reciprocal by performing the favor — a quid pro quo. Withholding aid and a White House visit to coerce Ukraine to perform an investigation would be extortion (even if Zelenskyy found out about the withheld aid and visit later). Both quid pro quo and extortion are generally accepted tools in foreign policy and well within the President’s foreign policy powers — so long as the President is conducting foreign affairs.
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.
Coverup – Mishandling Records A verbatim transcript of the July 25, 2019 Trump-Zelenskyy phone call was filed in a location meant for classified materials, the White House confirmed, even though the call did not involve classified information, according to the whistleblower complaint, in order to restrict access to it. 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 verbatim transcript to be preserved but may not require that the records be stored in any particular electronic system. (What has often been described as the public transcript of the call is actually a summary of the call produced by the White House — it is not known whether the White House accurately summarized the verbatim transcript.)
Coverup – Withholding Whistleblower Report Although the whistleblower report was written on Aug. 12, 2019 and was deemed by a Trump-appointed nonpartisan civil servant to be credible, 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.
Obstruction The White House sent a letter to the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry stating that it will not respond to the committees’ subpoenas because, they say, the House is not affording the President due process rights as he would have in a criminal trial — but an impeachment is not a trial. If the House completes the inquriy and votes to impeach, which is similar to preparing a list of charges, then only at that point would a trial will be held in the Senate. Refusal to cooperate with subpoenas could likely become another impeachment charge, as it was in the case of President Richard Nixon. Failure to comply with a congressional subpoena is a crime.
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. ← We are here.
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)