Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House in the US Congress, has announced plans for a formal impeachment inquiry into US president [checks notes] Donald Trump.
This follows claims that he withheld military support to Ukraine in an attempt to force its President, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating former US Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who has business dealings in the country.
And before you either start rejoicing about justice finally being done or howling about yet another of those witch hunts which seem to surround America’s current leader, it’s worth knowing what that actually means.
And the TL;DR answer is “a holding of the leader to account, but not as much as you’d think-slash-hope”.
What grounds does impeachment cover?
The blanket term used in the US Constitution is “high crimes and misdemeanours”, but the problem is that it’s never been clearly defined. So there’s the first legal hurdle.
Joshua Matz, co-author of To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, describes impeachable offences as involving “an abuse of power, a betrayal of the nation or a corruption of the office for private benefit that poses a substantial and ongoing risk of harm to the ongoing constitutional order if the president is allowed to remain in office.”
So you can see how that might not be great for Trump, really.
And you get fired as president as a result, right?
In fact, the only impeachment proceedings which have resulted in someone losing their job in the US have been federal judges, and even that’s only happened eight times.
Oh. So what does an impeachment prove, exactly?
It’s the same thing as being found to have charges to answer – think of it as being like an indictment in US criminal law. So once Congress has impeached the matter then goes to trial in the Senate, and that’s probably where matters would get stuck.
Which presidents have been impeached?
Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, and Bill Clinton was impeached 130 years later in 1998.
And they didn’t lose their jobs?
Wait, didn’t Richard Nixon get impeached?
No. He was going to be, but quit before it actually happened.
So would Trump lose the presidency if he was impeached?
It’s possible, but it’s literally never happened before.
The two successful impeachments didn’t end with the president being removed: Clinton had a safe senate buffer, although Johnson only survived by a single vote.
It would require the charge to pass through the Congress (which it most likely would, given that the Democrats have control of the House) and then move to trial in the Senate where it would likely fall over, as the Republicans have the majority.
In Trump’s case, a vote to actually remove the president from office following that unlikely guilty verdict would need to be passed by a majority of the senate which, in the current make up, would require 20 Republicans to back their president being dumped. And that feels… look, it’s a long shot.
Following that, there would be a ruling by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that would actually remove the president.
Also, there’s an election next year so things would have to move awfully fast. And obviously both sides will be using this as a way to galvanise their voting blocs – to remove a potential criminal in the Democrats’ case, and to protect a great man from the forces of the Establishment in the Republicans’.
In other words: impeachment is just the first step if you want to sack a president, and it’s very hard to do.
How is Trump going to address this?
Probably on Twitter, in all caps.