Donald Trump is only the third president in US history to be impeached. Here, Nell Frizell and Jessica Rapana run through everything that’s happened in the impeachment process.
If you’ve been watching The Irishman on Netflix recently, some of the following may sound familiar: phone calls, accusations, threats, leverage, counter-accusations, a code of vagueness used to cover specific demands. But this is not a Mafia epic; this is the impeachment of the President of the United States, Donald Trump.
Trump has become the third president to be impeached (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both acquitted; Richard Nixon resigned before impeachment could take place).
The two charges made against the Trump are abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, making him the first president ever to be charged with these specific articles. The first passed in the House of Representatives (which has a Democratic majority) by 230-197 votes, while the second passed by 229-198. This means that almost everybody from the Republicans voted against impeachment while almost every Democrat voted in favour.
To put it briefly, Trump has been accused of using US military aid to Ukraine as leverage to try and get the president of that country, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky, to investigate the probable Democrat candidate in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden. This would have undermined Biden’s hopes of running against the current president and therefore would’ve strengthened Trump’s election chances. This is serious because in America, it is illegal to ask foreign powers to help you win an election.
A little bit of background: during Biden’s time as vice-president, his son Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. Burisma was being investigated by Ukraine’s most senior prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. Shokin was then dismissed.
Trump has since accused Biden of pressuring for the prosecutor to be dismissed in order to get Hunter Biden off the hook. Biden argues that while he did put pressure on Ukraine to sack Shokin (by denying them aid until they had done so) this is because Shokin was corrupt and not doing enough to investigate. Subsequent investigators have claimed that there is no need to investigate the Bidens.
Now we’re all up to speed, here’s the timeline of how Trump found himself facing impeachment…
25 July – the ‘absolutely perfect phone call’
This whole fandango largely centres around a phone conversation that took place between American president Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, on 25 July.
Like Trump, Zelensky is a former television presenter who had very little political experience before he came to power. Zelensky wrote on his own website after the phone call that Trump “is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA”.
Those corruption cases are, it is assumed, a reference to the investigation into the role of Biden in having prosecutor Shokin sacked. The inhibited interaction, presumably, is reference to Trump blocking nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine (which Trump has acknowledged that he did, personally). So, allegedly, the president is asking for an investigation into one of his political rivals, in return for military aid. Over 10 people were allegedly listening to this phone call and transcriptions were made.
12 August – the whistleblower files a complaint
On 12 August an as-yet-still-unknown whistleblower from inside the intelligence community filed a complaint about this phone call with Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the United States Intelligence Community. This whistleblower was not, apparently, one of the 10 people who overheard the phone call but they did see sections of the transcript and considered those cause enough for alarm. According to the BBC, the whistleblower alleged that Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the US 2020 election”.
24 September – the impeachment inquiry is announced
On 24 September a formal impeachment inquiry was announced by Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and the speaker of the House of Representatives. This inquiry would investigate the accusations of foul play and then it would have to be decided within the House of Representatives if there were grounds to impeach the president.
The inquiry demanded information on the phone call with Zelensky; the next day Trump released a copy of the rough transcript. However, on 29 October Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the US National Security Council, claimed that the transcript had some crucial omissions.
8 October – no co-operation
The White House announced on 8 October that it would not cooperate with the impeachment investigation and ordered Gordon Sondland (the United States ambassador to the European Union) not to testify. This is what is now being treated as obstruction of Congress.
However, on 17 October Sondland went against those orders and testified that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani made “more insidious efforts” at the time to get Ukraine to open an investigation into Trump’s political rival, Biden.
4-6 November – the question of quid pro quo
Quid pro quo is one of those funny Latin terms that only history teachers and lawyers still use. Essentially, it means a favour or advantage, granted in return for something. The accusation here is that Trump presented the investigation into Biden as a favour the Ukrainian president could grant, in return for that blocked military aid.
On 4 November Sondland testified that he did remember a quid pro quo with Zelensky. On 6 November the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, published his testimony which, according to The Guardian “described two state department officials as saying Trump would not ‘sign a check’ for almost $400m in military aid until Ukraine made good on its end of the deal”.
Such a quid pro quo would be an example of a foreign power helping Trump with his 2020 election campaign.
13 December – choosing the articles of impeachment
It took a lot of debate (and by debate we mean arguing) for those two articles of impeachment – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – to be passed by the the House Judiciary Committee. The House Judiciary Committee is a committee within the House of Representatives that oversees the administration of justice within the federal courts, administrative agencies and federal law enforcement entities. The vote then goes to the larger House of Representatives
18 December – Nancy Pelosi announces the articles of impeachment
On 18 December the House of Representatives eventually voted in favour of the two articles of impeachment. As the votes are passed, Pelosi sternly warns the Democrats in the chamber not to cheer or clap. She makes a short speech, saying: “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”
She added: “When the president’s wrongdoing was revealed he launched an unprecedented, indiscriminate and categorical campaign of defiance and obstruction.” Pelosi also accused Trump of considering himself “above the law”.
19 December – Vladimir Putin’s reaction
At his annual end-of-the-year press conference on 19 December, Russian president Vladimir Putin described the charges against Trump as “absolutely far-fetched” and “made up” by the Democrats to try and get Trump out of the White House. A quick explainer about Ukraine: since 2014 Ukraine and Russia have been fighting over Ukraine’s sovereignty, particularly in the Crimean Peninsula. President Barack Obama supported Ukraine in its independence from Russia (in the form of military aid). Trump, on the other hand, seems to have a closer relationship with Putin.
21 January 2020 – Senate trial begins
Chief justice of the US supreme court John Roberts was sworn in to preside over the trial. The first day’s events were mostly ceremonious with proceedings adjourned to 1pm ET on Tuesday.
Unprecedented media restriction
According to The Guardian, the impeachment trial will see significant new restrictions imposed on the media. While Congressional reporters are usually free to approach senators as they walk through the hallways, this will not be allowed during the impeachment trial. On top of that, senators have been given flashcards with ‘tips’ to avoid media, with phrases like “Please get our of my way” and “You are preventing me from doing my job”.
Senate prepares to hear opening arguments
Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has unveiled a resolution designed to move the trial forward at unanticipated speed. House impeachment managers will be forced to deliver their case in two marathon 12-hour sessions, which could push past midnight and could prevent evidence and witnesses gathered by the House from being heard, according to The Guardian.
Under these rules, potential witnesses would need to be deposed before testifying at the trial and require individual Senate votes to be called. This is significant, as the Democrats will largely be relying on such witnesses to make their case and ultimately, to change how the public perceives Trump’s behaviour.
Trump’s lawyers will be given equal time to respond. As a result, the president could be acquitted in a matter of days, before his State of Union address on February 4, as he has previously requested.
Opening arguments are expected to begin on Wednesday afternoon.
23 January – “Our future is not assured”
As the sun sets on the second day of the impeachment trial, there is plenty to talk about. Or, shall we say, tweet about?
Amid all the national crisis warnings, peculiar trial rules and lack of fresh witnesses, there was one voice that cut through all the rest: Trump’s
Trump, known fan of the all caps tweet, had much to say. So much, it seems, that he broke his own record.
The president tweeted no less than 131 times between 12am and 4.46pm ET – an average of one tweet per 88 seconds – according to Factbase, a platform that tracks data about Trump.
This includes 36 original tweets and 110 retweets, making it the president’s most active day on the platform since his inauguration.
Trump, who was not in attendance but travelling back to the US from Davos in Switzerland, was tweeting in real-time while impeachment managers began to lay out the case against him.
Most of his tweets were attempts to defend himself, claiming that Democrats “don’t have the evidence” and “don’t have the facts”. Others were praising his work as a president. Trump also shared a tweet calling New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “barely literate moron”.
Trump’s tweet-athon did not quite break his per hour record for tweets (58 tweets), but then again, it is only day two.
Milk and candy, anyone?
Senators tasked with deciding Trump’s fate are being bound by a strict and bizarre set of rules.
For starters, senators are not allowed to chat between themselves during the proceedings, limited instead to passing notes to communicate or waiting until they are outside.
There are also no electronic devices allowed. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted: “Senators aren’t allowed to have our phones in the chamber, so I’ll be handing over the keys of this account to me Senate staff during the impeachment trial. Follow along for updates and information to help explain what’s happening on the Senate floor.”
Meanwhile, no food is allowed but senators can chew “small candies”, and drink milk or water during the proceedings.
What happened during the second full day of the impeachment trial?
OK, so what actually went down on the second day of the impeachment trial? I know, right? Good question.
With eight of their allotted 24 hours down, the impeachment managers, led by Democrat Adam Schiff, have given an overview of their case against Trump, promising there will be new witnesses “if we have a fair trial”, The Guardian reports.
Meanwhile, Schiff has warned republicans about what is at risk here, urging them to look beyond their loyalty to the president.
“If we don’t stand up to this peril today, we will write the history of our decline with our own hand.” He added: “Our future is not assured.”
So far, no Republican has revealed an intention to call for witnesses and documents, and yet, they have also (ironically) complained that they “didn’t hear anything new today”.
According to The Guardian, if things continue as they are: “Trump could get his wish of acquittal before his State of the Union address on 4 February”.
27 January – What can we expect from the second week of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial?
Donald Trump’s impeachment trial has resumed for what promises to be a pivotal week.
The president’s defence team will begin their main arguments today. Like prosecution, they will be given two 12-hour slots to make their case. However, they have indicated that it is unlikely they will need all of this time.
Trump’s defence team then has the right to raise objections against specific elements of the impeachment case.
Following this, Senators will given the opportunity to ask questions – which must be in writing – over the next 16 hours to the presiding judge, supreme court chief justice John Roberts.
This will be followed by a debate and crucial vote over whether to bring fresh witnesses and documents to the trial, likely held on either Thursday or Friday.
Effectively, this will determine whether the trial continues on for much longer or not.
It is widely regarded as unlikely that the Democrats will win this, however, as it would require four Republicans to break ranks.
Though unlikely, if the Senate votes to hear new evidence or witnesses, we can expect a fight over who and which documents might be subpoenaed.
On the other hand, if no new evidence or witnesses are heard, then the trial will likely be over fairly swiftly after closing deliberations and a final vote on whether to remove Trump from office or acquit him.
In which case, the trial could all be over by Monday or Tuesday next week. The latter being Trump’s State of the Union address, the date he explicitly wanted the trial resolved by.
Trump has already vowed to punish Democrats for trying to remove him from office. He tweeted that Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and lead impeachment manager, was “a CORRUPT POLITICIAN, and probably a very sick man [sic].”
“He has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country,” the president wrote.
When asked by NBC’s Meet The Press whether he viewed this tweet as a threat, Schiff said: “I think it’s intended to be.”
30 January – Who is John Bolton?
By now, you’ve probably heard the name John Bolton being thrown around.
Here’s why: the former national security advisor has written an upcoming book (which the White House has gone to great lengths to prevent from being published) in which he claims that Trump directly linked a delay in military aid to Ukraine to a condition that the Ukrainian Government investigate one of his Democratic rivals, Joe Biden.
On Monday, The New York Times published an article revealing the contents of the book – specifically, the allegations about Trump – which is widely being regarded as the biggest bombshell of the impeachment trial.
It is highly likely that Bolton would be the first witness called by Senators. Leading Democrat Adam Schiff said: “When you have a witness who is as plainly relevant as John Bolton – who goes to the heart of the most serious and egregious of the president’s misconduct, who has volunteered to come and testify – to turn him away, to look the other way, I think is deeply at odds with being an impartial juror.”
Will new evidence be called in the impeachment trial?
This question is pivotal to the outcome of the impeachment trial, as new witnesses and documents could sway the opinions of senators and the public.
Following the second day of Q&A, senators are expected to vote on Friday on whether new witnesses or documents are called. In order for Democrats to win the vote, this would require at least four Republicans to break ranks.
Three Republican senators – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney – have all shown interest in calling new witnesses. However, winning the vote would require at least four senators as three would lead to a 50-50 tie.
Usually, the final vote is broken by the vice president. However, given Mike Pence’s conflict of interest in the impeachment trial, this is not possible.
Majority leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that he would consider a 50-50 vote to be a failed vote, meaning then no new witnesses would be called.
Why don’t Republicans want to hear more evidence?
Good question. Team Trump are largely towing the line that calling new witnesses could change “the nature and scope of the proceedings” and could lead to court challenges that would ultimately draw out the trial indefinitely.
How is corruption in “the public interest”?
Yesterday, Alan Dershowitz made the extraordinary argument that Trump may have been acting in “the public interest” by pushing for Ukrainian investigations of Democrats because he believed that his re-election was in the public interest.
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz told senators.
In other words, he seemed to be suggesting that even if a quid pro quo took place, it would not be impeachable because it was in the public interest.
Following the public reaction, Dershowitz seemed to backflip on this argument today, blaming that the media distorted his comments.
He wrote on Twitter: “They characterised my argument as if I had said that if a president believes that his re-election was in the national interest, he can do anything. I said nothing like that, as anyone who actually heard what I said can attest.”
31 January – Warren expertly trolls Chief Justice Roberts
The only thing better than trolling someone with a question you both already know the answer to? Making them read that question aloud.
This is exactly what Elizabeth Warren did to Chief Justice John Roberts – and on live-television, no less.
During Thursday’s question-and-answer portion of the impeachment trial, the majority of questions were thinly disguised swipes at opponents.
Warren, however, had a different target in mind: Chief Justice Roberts.
“At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government,” Warren began. “Does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court and the constitution?”
In other words, Warren was asking whether the chief justice had hurt the credibility of the Supreme Court by participating in a trial with no witnesses or evidence.
And that is how it is done, folks.
Why will there be no new witnesses or evidence?
While the vote on whether to hear new evidence or witnesses is yet to take place, it is looking unlikely.
Republican senators Mitt Romney and Susan Collins have both said they are in favor of witnesses – however, this is still not enough to get the Democratic proposal passed.
If they are joined by another Republican senator, this would create a tie. However, while some Democrats have called for Chief Justice Roberts to intervene in the event of a tie vote, this seems unlikely. Meaning that unless at least two more senators join Romney and Collins, the proposal will fail.
Why is this significant?
If no new witnesses or evidence is heard, the trial will proceed towards a vote on whether to impeach Trump or not, which is likely to lead to this swift acquittal. This would then make Trump the third president in American history to have been impeached but avoid removal after trial.
5 February – Donald Trump is acquitted
The Senate has voted to acquit president Donald Trump on both articles of impeachment, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, almost entirely along party lines.
Following the vote, Trump tweeted calling out Senator Romney, the only Republican to cast a ‘guilty’ vote against him, as “slippery”.
All Democrats cast ‘guilty’ votes on both articles.
The impact of Trump’s acquittal remains unclear.
On the one hand, House speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted in January that Trump “has been impeached forever” and it would always be a stain on his record.
However, on the other hand, the process seems to have left the president even more powerful, recording his highest ever approval rating in one poll this week.
Furthermore, there are some fears that Democrats who found Trump guilty in the Senate could face consequences in the November election.
This article was originally published on 20 December 2019, but has been updated throughout to reflect new details as they are revealed throughout the impeachment trial.
Images: Getty (edited), Getty