The US House of Representatives launched an official impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on September 24, 2019 (Credit: Alpha Stock Images/ Nick Youngson/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

On September 24, 2019, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives (House), launched a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The investigation was triggered by allegations that Mr. Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into the business ties of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son, Hunter. Allegedly, in order to persuade Zelensky to agree, the US president withheld federal military aid from Ukraine. So how will the impeachment process work, and what are its potential long-term implications for the president? Read on . . .

What is impeachment?

Impeachment is the process by which House lawmakers can charge any high-ranking civil government official — including the president — for alleged crimes committed while in office. The accusation, similar to an indictment in criminal law, does not mean instant removal from office. The impeached official remains at his/her job until he/she is convicted.

What kinds of "crimes" can trigger an impeachment?

Under Article II section 4 of the US Constitution, impeachable offenses include "Treason, Bribery, and other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Though the first two crimes are easy to identify, the third category is broader, allowing lawmakers a lot of leeway in determining what constitutes impeachable wrongdoing.

How does the impeachment process work?

The process begins with an investigation, or an impeachment inquiry, similar to what Ms. Pelosi announced on September 24. During this time, House lawmakers collect evidence, summon witnesses, and carefully review all the information regarding the alleged crime(s).

The impeachment process begins with a formal inquiry by the House of Representatives (Credit: Statista Research/CC By-SA 2.0)

Following the investigation, the House decides whether or not to recommend articles of impeachment, an official accusation of the crime(s) committed. The recommendation is then sent for approval to the Houses Judiciary Committee, which is charged with overseeing the administration of justice within the federal courts, administrative agencies, and federal law enforcement entities. If a majority of its 41 members agree on the validity of the claims, the issue goes back to the House for a general vote.

Upon receiving a simple majority, the impeachment charge(s) is/are sent to the Senate. The Senate Majority Leader can either decline to take action on the allegations or put it to vote. If he/she decides on the latter, two thirds, or 67 of the 100 senators, have to vote in favor of the conviction. Only if convicted will the official, or the president as is the case here, be forced to leave the office.

Have any past US presidents faced impeachment?

President Trump is the fourth US President who has faced an impeachment inquiry. Andrew Johnson, who served from 1865 to 1869, was charged with 11 articles of impeachment in 1868. While his primary offense was firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton one of the charges also argued that his habit of delivering remarks "with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues,” made him an unsuitable president. Mr. Johnson was acquitted after the Senate votes fell one short of the two-thirds needed to convict.

Former US President Andrew Johnson missed conviction by a single vote during the Senate hearing on May 26, 1868 (Credit: Theodore R. Davis /Public domain)

President Richard Nixon's woes began shortly after winning his second term in a landslide victory against George McGovern in 1972, when he was accused of irregularities in what became known as the "Watergate" scandal. Following an investigation by the House in 1974, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against the 37th US president: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. However, before things went any further, Mr. Nixon resigned from office.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bill Clinton, who served as the 42nd US president from 1993 to 2001, faced two articles of impeachment — obstruction of justice and perjury — in 1998. On February 12, 1999, Mr. Clinton was acquitted of both charges after the Senate failed to garner the required two-third votes.

What happens next?

Since the House is still in the investigative phase, there is a possibility that President Trump may never be charged with any wrongdoing, thereby ending the matter. Even if they find enough evidence, it will be up to the House Judiciary Committee to approve the articles of impeachment and then put them to vote. If the conviction does pass the House, the ultimate decision is in the hands of the Senate, which is controlled by members of Mr. Trump's Republican Party. Hence, it could take some time before any resolution is reached.