President Trump entered the history books in a new category Wednesday: He is the third president in U.S. history to have been impeached by the House. The two votes on impeachment bring to an end the House’s months-long inquiry into whether Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit him politically.
Here’s how we got to this moment, and what you can expect in the Senate trial that comes next.
What happened Wednesday?
The House spent Wednesday debating the two impeachment articles on the House floor. The first article accused Trump of abusing his power by leveraging the federal government and taxpayer money for his personal and political gain, and the second accused him of obstructing the congressional inquiry into his actions on Ukraine.
Republicans who spoke almost universally accused Democrats of looking for an excuse to impeach Trump, while Democrats argued that Trump’s conduct regarding Ukraine necessitated impeachment.
Both articles passed, meaning Trump is impeached. The article on abuse of power passed 230 to 197, and the one on obstruction passed 229 to 198.
But he’s not removed from office. The Senate determines whether that will happen.
A president who has been impeached by the House can still serve as president. It’s up to the Senate to hold a trial to decide whether to remove him from office. The two other presidents impeached by the House, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, were both acquitted by the Senate.
The Constitution only says that the Senate has to hold a trial, with the senators sitting as jurors, House lawmakers serving as prosecutors known as managers, and the chief justice of the United States presiding over it. Senators must take a public vote, and two-thirds of those present must agree on whether to convict the president and thus remove him from office. But the Constitution doesn’t lay out exactly how to hold a trial.
How a Senate trial works
Rules the Senate approved in the 1980s give some guidelines, but the really important stuff — such as whether to call witnesses and what kind of evidence to admit and how long to make it — is up to the senators themselves to decide. The only modern guide we have is the Clinton impeachment trial, which allowed no new evidence and only taped witness testimony of key witnesses. It was largely considered a successful example of bipartisan cooperation, as Republicans worked with Democrats to put together as fair a trial as possible.
A majority of senators need to agree on the rules for Trump’s impeachment trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will probably try to come to a compromise beforehand on what witnesses to call to avoid a big, dramatic battle during the trial. But they have vastly different views on how to do this. Schumer has said he wants people close to the president during the period scrutinized in the impeachment inquiry, such as Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, or former national security adviser John Bolton, to testify. The Washington Post has reported McConnell wants no witnesses at all. Republicans are also feeling pressured by Trump, who appears ready to use the Senate trial to attack his political opponents and try to undermine his impeachment.
Even though the Senate trial is in Republican hands, The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports that some House Democrats are trying to influence what happens. As many as three dozen want to hold back the impeachment articles from going to the Senate immediately, which could delay the Senate trial Trump so badly wants to clear his name — and perhaps put pressure on Republicans to consider inviting witnesses who could be damaging to Trump. House leadership has not ruled that out, but it seems like a long shot.
Minutes after the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters she wouldn’t be naming House managers until she saw the parameters of the Senate trial and was assured it was fair, strongly suggesting that she believes a fair trial includes witnesses.
Assuming they get the articles without delay, senators will come to an agreement on a start date for a trial. We expect that will be in January. Senators will start by taking an oath of impartiality and will work six days a week until they’ve voted on both articles of impeachment. If there are witnesses, senators can ask them questions in writing, which the presiding official, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., will read out loud. The president can choose his own lawyers, and they can cross-examine witnesses. The chief justice can overrule something that happens in the trial that he feels is out of line with the rules, but senators can overrule him with a vote.
If Trump is convicted on even one count, the Constitution says he has to be removed from office. Senators could take yet another vote to prevent him from running for office ever again.
What is the likelihood of the Senate convicting Trump?
It’s low. House Republicans displayed remarkable unity during the impeachment process — none of them voted for impeachment. Outside Congress, Trump remains popular among his base. Against that backdrop, it’s hard to see mass defections among Senate Republicans to override their party’s voters and kick the president out of office.
A mass defection by members of his own party is what it would take to convict Trump and remove him from office. Twenty of the 53 Republican senators would need to join all Democratic-voting senators to reach the two-thirds supermajority the Constitution requires for impeachment. We count 14 who have expressed at least some level of concern with Trump’s behavior on Ukraine policy, but there are only three Republican senators who have a track record of speaking out against Trump consistently: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah. In addition, it’s not a given that all Senate Democrats stay together. Someone like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has crossed party lines before.
So, there probably aren’t enough senators to convict Trump as the evidence stands now. But there are enough senators in the middle of the political spectrum to put weight on Senate leaders to conduct a fair trial.
How we got here
The events that led to the impeachment inquiry span years, and you can dig into them in this exhaustive timeline. Here’s a shorter recap.
SPRING AND SUMMER 2019
The alleged quid pro quo
Congress and the Defense Department approve nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in early 2019. Out of public view, diplomats urge Trump to meet in the Oval Office with Ukraine’s newly elected president — a meeting the Ukrainians view as an important signal to Russia. But that meeting is pushed off, and the military aid is ordered stopped by the White House. In late July, Trump speaks to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking him to “do us a favor though” that includes investigating his political opponents and the Biden family.
In August, a whistleblower files a complaint about that call, alleging Trump had dangled a meeting with Zelensky in exchange for launching investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter and into a conspiracy theory about a Democratic National Committee server.
Impeachment inquiry is launched
The Post’s editorial board writes that it had been “reliably told” that Trump was pressuring Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. The existence of the whistleblower complaint is reported by The Post and other outlets. The White House releases a rough transcript of the call with Zelensky, and the whistleblower complaint becomes public. And Pelosi announces the House will conduct an impeachment inquiry into Trump to see whether his actions on Ukraine render him unfit for office.
OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER
A public investigation
The investigation is underway. It happens behind closed doors at first. Then we get dramatic public testimony by witnesses, many of whom say Trump held up an Oval Office meeting with Ukraine’s president in an attempt to get the probes he wanted. Many witnesses say they believe Trump withheld the military aid for the same reason.
Trump also blocked his top aides from complying with congressional subpoenas to testify in the investigation.
The vote to impeach
The House Intelligence Committee released a report on the findings of the investigation, and based on that, the Judiciary Committee wrote up the two articles of impeachment the House voted on and approved Wednesday.
Americans started out skeptical of removing Trump from office, and after more than two months, they are split basically 50-50, according to a Post-ABC News poll. The all-important independents are also split, the poll found.
Washington Post-ABC News Poll
Note: No opinion not shown
Source: Dec. 10-15, 2019, Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,003 adults with an error margin of +/- 3.5 percentage points. Error margin larger among subgroups.
LESLIE SHAPIRO/THE WASHINGTON POST
The only thing most Americans, including Republicans, agree about on impeachment is that Trump’s top aides should testify in a Senate trial.