“I” is for Impeachment

by Soleil Ozols

On August 12, 2019, an anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint to the Select Committee on Intelligence regarding current President Donald Trump. The contents of the complaint were in regards to whether or not President Trump used his power as president to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.[1] Through multiple reputable sources, the anonymous whistleblower filed the complaint because of the actions that constituted “a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, or violation of law or Executive Order’ that ‘does not include differences of opinions concerning public policy matters” that are consistent with the definition of an “urgent concern” in 50 U.S.C. §3033(k)(5)(G).[2] Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson was the one who reviewed the whistleblower complaint and determined it to be credible, allowing the prospects for an inquisition on the impeachment of President Trump to take form. On September 26, the whistleblower complaint was declassified along with the transcript of a call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Based on the information brought to light from the complaint and the transcript, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the accusations against President Donald Trump.

As of 2019, there have only been two presidential impeachments by the House: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. As each case of presidential impeachment has occurred, there is a lack of precedent due to the staggering differences in each case and the lack of direction as to how to navigate an impeachment, from inquiry to the end of the impeachment process, in the Constitution. Article II Section 4 states that “[t]he President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”[3] The only other mention of impeachment is in the third section of the Fourteenth Amendment that says, “[no] person shall…, having previously taken an oath…as an executive…shall have engaged in Insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may be a vote of two thirds of each House, remove such disability.”[4] All there is to dictate the proceedings of a case of impeachment are two vague sections in the Constitution, so the minutiae of the process are left up to the Chief Justice. The founding fathers chose to vaguely list the requirements for impeachment due to the fear that specificity would inhibit Congress’s ability to determine when a president should be impeached. The non-specific language is open to interpretation, so that every case of impeachment can be investigated by Congress on a case-by-case basis. Despite the lack of structure, there are two requirements for impeachment: a two-thirds majority from both houses of Congress.[5] The House of Representatives votes for impeachment, and if a majority of the House votes in favor of impeachment, the Senate conducts a trial that requires a two-thirds majority to convict and remove the sitting president. Although two presidents have gone through the proceedings for impeachment, no president has yet been the subject of an impeachment trial and then voted in a two-thirds majority to be removed from office.

As aforementioned, the sitting president may only be the subject of an impeachment trial if believed to be guilty of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. By the 28th of September, 224 members of the House said they supported an inquiry into the impeachment of President Trump.[6] The inquiry is based on the desire to investigate whether or not the President used his power as executive to ask for information on political rival Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, while withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine. This act would constitute reasonable grounds for impeachment because of the vagueness of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. By “high crimes”, the Fourteenth Amendment is referencing the fact that when a citizen commits an unlawful offense it is called a crime; for the president, an unlawful offense is a high crime. In the case of former-president Johnson, the Senate was voting to convict the president of “high crimes and misdemeanors” because of Johnson’s violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Former-president Clinton was impeached because of the specific charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice, two of which both fell under the umbrella of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Withholding aid in exchange for private information on a political opponent could be a manipulation of executive power worthy of impeachment, but if it is not, there is a possibility for there to be another action by President Trump that could be an impeachable offense. However, in that case, the impeachment process would need to start over with the new offense. The impeachment process has very little regulations and has seldomly happened in the past 243 years of the existence of the United States, so there is very little precedent to go by, giving the House of Representatives and the Senate the ability to go forward in the inquiry against President Trump in any way they please. Not only are the findings of Congress important to today’s political climate, but the capability of Congress to impeach is important as well, because of the current tensions between the Republican and Democratic Parties and their current controversy as to whether President Trump has the moral aptitude to remain as President of the United States.

[1] U.S. Gov’t Committee on Intelligence, whistleblower complaint, (Aug. 12, 2019).

[2] Id.

[3] U.S. Const. art. II, § 4.

[4] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 3.

[5] Id.

[6] Alicia Parlapiano, Complete List: Who Supports an Impeachment Inquiry Against Trump?, The New York Times (Sept. 28, 2019, 7:10 PM), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/us/politics/trump-impeachment-congress-list.html.