Get smart on impeachment before Thanksgiving dinner
Posted November 27, 2019 3:44 p.m. EST
CNN — Happy Thanksgiving! You probably don't want to talk politics with your Uncle Al, but it's going to come up.
A CNN poll this week found that about 4 in 10 Americans are paying very close attention to the impeachment proceedings -- but almost everyone has an opinion about it. Here's what you need to know about impeachment to not sound like a stuffed turkey in front of your family and friends.
1. Is Trump going to be impeached?
Yes, probably -- but that's not the same as being removed from office. Here's how it all works.
It's clear that the Democrats who control the House believe they have the votes to impeach President Donald Trump. He'd be only the third president in history to suffer that indignity after Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868. Richard Nixon resigned rather than be impeached in 1974, but he did so only when Republican senators made clear they'd also vote to remove him from office. Trump faces no such insurrection yet.
2. When is Trump going to be impeached?
Long story short: A vote might happen by Christmas.
After two weeks of public hearings, Democrats are spending this holiday week writing up a report on what we learned from the hearings and they're also starting to craft articles of impeachment, the official accusations they'll vote on. That will take a little time, but the House Judiciary Committee has already scheduled procedural hearings starting the first week of December.
Here's what's happening behind the scenes this week.
3. How close will the impeachment vote be?
Impeaching a President only takes a majority vote in the House. Democrats have a majority in the House and then some. The current breakdown is 233 Democrats to 197 Republicans with one independent -- that's Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party earlier this year because of his opposition to Trump and his support for impeachment proceedings.
So Democrats can lose 18 of their own members and still have the votes to impeach Trump.
4. What happens if Trump is impeached?
According to the Constitution, the the Senate conducts a trial to decide if an impeached President should be removed from office. But while a simple majority can impeach a President in the House, it takes a supermajority in the Senate -- 67 of 100 members -- to remove an impeached President from office.
Republicans hold a majority in the Senate of 53-45, though two independents almost always side with Democrats. (Those would be Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Maine's Angus King.)
The final math: 20 Republicans would have to cross the aisle to vote to remove Trump from office.
Exactly zero Republican senators have sounded like they're anywhere close to turning on him. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has committed to holding a trial if the House votes to impeach. "We will take it up, because we have no choice," he said Monday.
5. If Democrats have zero chance of removing Trump from office, why would they impeach him?
That's a great question. It has a number of answers. First, it's clear that the base of Democratic voters is pretty insistent that the party do this. Democrats want those voters to show up in November. But perhaps more importantly, they think Trump's behavior demands it.
"I want it on the record that the House of Representatives did their job and they told this President and any president coming behind him that this is unacceptable behavior and under our Constitution, we will not allow it," Michigan Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence said earlier this week.
6. What exactly did Trump do that's so bad?
The short version is that he appears to have used the promise of aid -- paid for with US tax dollars -- as leverage to force a foreign country to do him a political favor.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted two things from Trump -- a meeting at the White House to give him status on the world stage and money to help the Ukrainian military in its standoff with Russia. Trump or his top aides put a hold on money Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists. And he appears to have done it with the express purpose of forcing Ukraine to investigate a conspiracy theory he has about Russian interference in 2016 and also the Bidens.
Here's a longer look at the arguments for and against impeaching Trump.
7. Why should Americans care about Ukraine?
The military aid to Ukraine is important because a lot of Western countries see Ukraine as a bulwark standing between Russia and the West. In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. You don't really think of countries invading each other these days, but Russia did that to part of Ukraine not that long ago.
And more to the point: a lot of what Trump does in foreign policy seems to benefit Vladimir Putin, the Russian President.
Here's a CNN report from the front lines of that war in Ukraine.
8. What's Trump's problem with Ukraine?
Again, Trump has adopted a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind meddling in the 2016 election. This conspiracy theory gets really complicated, and Trump uses the confusion to his advantage. Here's a fact check of the very many misleading things Trump has about Ukraine.
The idea of Ukrainian meddling has also been debunked, most recently by witnesses testifying in the impeachment proceedings. Read what they said here.
9. What about the quid pro quo?
The core of the case against Trump is a July 25 phone call he had with Zelensky. On that call, Trump never issued an ultimatum, but after Zelensky talked about missiles Ukraine needed, Trump asked him for the favor of investigating his theory about 2016 meddling, and also to look in to the Bidens.
Trump says his call with Zelensky was "perfect." You can judge for yourself by reading the transcript here.
In September, when this all came out, Trump said the aid was held up to pressure European allies into giving more to Ukraine. But that defense has been undermined, most notably by Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy, who testified that he never heard that explanation until September. Read his testimony here.
10. How did all of this come out?
It became clear in September that aid to Ukraine had been held up. Then, on September 9, Congress was notified that a whistleblower had filed a complaint against Trump. The whistleblower report is still a really important document. Here's an annotated version of it.
On September 11, the hold on the Ukraine aid was lifted -- though the whistleblower complaint itself wasn't delivered to Congress until September 25. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Trump knew about the whistleblower complaint when he released the aid.
11. What happened in the hearings?
Trump's political appointees, with one exception, have all refused to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. And the State Department, Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget have all declined to provide documents about how and when military aid was held up.
But impeachment investigators have deposed 17 people -- most of them professional State Department diplomats, National Security Council experts and a Lt. Col. in the US Army -- and conducted two weeks of public hearings with a lot of those same witnesses. Use our tracker to see who's testified.
We learned a lot in those two weeks. Everything from how Trump built a shadow foreign policy with Giuliani that led to the recall of an ambassador to the concerns that were raised in real time about his call with Zelensky by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and the concerns that were raised about the holdup in the aid by Bill Taylor, now the top US official in Ukraine.
Fiona Hill, a former NSC staffer, distilled everything down perfectly when she said it dawned on her during the hearings that she and others were pursuing national security foreign policy while Giuliani and Sondland had been dispatched on Trump's "domestic political errand."
Here's a roundup of the best moments from the hearings.
12. Who hasn't testified?
Because Trump has decided not to cooperate with the inquiry and is making a claim of "absolute immunity" in the courts, we haven't heard from his closest allies and they probably have the most to say.
For instance, Vice President Mike Pence met with Zelensky when Trump couldn't. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the call when Trump talked to Zelensky and he was in contact with Giuliani about the Ukraine conspiracy theories last Spring. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was involved in holding up the aid to Ukraine before Trump's call with Zelensky. White House and National Security Council lawyers made the decision to put the call into a more restricted server, potentially trying to hide it from the public.
A federal judge this week rejected the "absolute immunity" argument. "Presidents are not kings," she wrote in her ruling that Trump's former White House counsel Don McGahn must testify before Congress about the Mueller report. That's a case that seems destined for the Supreme Court regardless of whether Democrats wait to impeach Trump. But Chairman Adam Schiff made clear in a letter to members that he has no intention of waiting for courts to sort things out, and moreover that he thinks the failure of White House staff to testify is further evidence of obstruction. Read that here.
One more person we haven't heard from: The whistleblower
The whistleblower set this whole thing in motion with the complaint that was filed back on August 12. The whistleblower's lawyers argue that so much of the complaint has been corroborated that the whistleblower doesn't need to testify at this point, and the law protects the whistleblower's right to anonymity.
13. What is Trump's defense?
He used to say there was "no quid pro quo" and suggested that the whistleblower was a partisan working to undermine him.
Now Trump dismisses it in the same way he dismissed the Russia investigation, as a hoax. This week, he called it a "phony Impeachment Scam."
For your reference
This is an extremely detailed and increasingly complicated story. Here are our best explainers:
Follow a detailed timeline of events here.
Meet all the players.
Here are the key elements from each bit of public testimony.
Track all the moves Congress has made in the investigation so far.
Learn about the process of impeachment and how it came to be in the Constitution.
Check out a detailed step-by-step guide to the impeachment process.
See the latest polling on how the impeachment effort has changed public opinion (it hasn't)
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election. Democrats want to impeach him for it. It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what's acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.