As House Democrats open their impeachment inquiry over Republican President Donald Trump's July phone call with Ukraine, local political science experts are offering an outline of what the public can expect to happen next.
The impeachment inquiry ramped up in September when a whistleblower revealed that Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on a phone call to pursue investigations of Democratic political rival Joe Biden’s family and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election. At the same time, the White House was withholding military aid from the country even though it had been approved by Congress.
It’s against federal law to solicit anything of value from a person from a foreign country in U.S. elections. Democrats are investigating to decide whether the conduct warrants impeachment, a process spelled out in the Constitution for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
How impeachment works
In the weeks since September, the House has held a series of closed-door sessions and taken testimony from witnesses in private. That's all according to proper procedures, said Darren Botello-Samson, a political science professor at Pittsburg (Kansas) State University.
"What has happened up until this point can be compared to a grand jury investigation," he said. "And all that a grand jury does is consider whether there is sufficient evidence and a probable cause for the government to bring charges against someone. That's all the House is really supposed to be doing at this point."
House Democrats opened the process today with the start of public hearings.
"As a public activity, the House Democrats are trying to make known to the broader public the information they have and hopefully allow the public to think through the information for purposes of a formal vote," said Will Delehanty, an associate professor of political science at Missouri Southern State University.
The hearings will be conducted in a number of House subcommittees that are in charge of legislation and activities related to the allegations against the president, Botello-Samson said. They will be run by Democrats because that's the party in control of the House, but questions will be asked of witnesses who are called to testify by both Democrats and Republicans, he said.
A vote by the House would come at the end of the inquiry, when House members would decide by a simple majority whether to impeach the president. A vote for impeachment doesn't mean Trump would be removed from office, and the House theoretically could also vote not to impeach the president, Delehanty said.
If the House vote supports impeachment, then the process moves to a second phase led by the Republican-held U.S. Senate. Senators would become a jury, with the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice overseeing the proceedings, and hold a trial to determine whether to find the president guilty of the impeachable charge. Members of the House would act as the prosecution, Botello-Samson said, and the president's own lawyers would serve as his defense, he said.
"Being impeached, in practice, is like the indictment because the Senate then holds the trial," he said.
Conviction in the trial phase requires a two-thirds vote of senators — a higher threshold than what is set for the House vote, Delehanty said.
"The idea is you would have sufficient consensus among sitting senators" to reach the level of conviction, he said.
A guilty verdict would be followed by the president's removal from office.
If Trump were to be impeached and removed from office prior to the next presidential election, Vice President Mike Pence would serve as the sitting president until November 2020. The Senate would determine if Trump were eligible to run again in that election, Delehanty said.
The president also wouldn't be immune to potential criminal prosecution after the impeachment process, Botello-Samson said.
'Very serious' procedure
Delehanty said students in his political science classes at Missouri Southern are highly interested in the process, particularly the "hyper-partisan" nature of how the impeachment inquiry has unfolded so far.
"There's some debate if impeachment is a legal charge or if it's a political charge," Delehanty said, adding that Trump has maintained the charge is of a political nature while Democrats are trying to substantiate a legal charge.
Botello-Samson said impeachment is a "very serious" action undertaken by members of Congress. This is only the fourth time the impeachment process has been used; it also was used for presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom were impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate, and Richard Nixon, who resigned from office before the process was over.
"When you impeach a president, what you're doing is overturning the results of an election, and in no way, shape or form should any political party enter into impeachment lightly," Botello-Samson said. "They need to do so in a way that the public sees that if an impeachment occurs, it is in response to specific actions engaged in the president. The public needs to see and understand that it isn't just a political decision that 'we don't like the president.'"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.