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US President Donald Trump speaks during the United States Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in New London, Connecticut on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

Everything you need to know if Trump impeachment moves start

Impeachment calls intensify amid reports the US president asked the ex-FBI director to halt probe of former national security adviser

Donald Trump
Michael Barrisin New York

US President Donald Trump’s critics stepped up calls for his impeachment after reports surfaced that in February Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to call off an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Flynn was fired by Trump after a Washington Post report revealing that former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who was also fired by Trump, warned White House officials weeks earlier that misrepresentations Flynn made about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak left him vulnerable to blackmail by the Kremlin.

Trump’s critics, including numerous Democratic lawmakers, say the president’s efforts to get Comey to drop the Flynn investigation amounted to obstruction of justice, a charge that could lead to impeachment proceedings.

At a press conference Wednesday, US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan declared “we need the facts” and recommended a further investigation into recent matters regarding the US presidency as part of an “an obligation to carry out our oversight,regardless of which party is in the White House”.

Michael J. Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees. “It’s a bit premature to be talking about impeachment,” he said in an interview. “It would make sense to do more fact-finding, as Ryan suggested.”

Gerhardt said Trump’s recent comments and behaviour are “disturbing” and “justify a further inquiry”.

What is impeachment?

Impeachment does not guarantee a president’s removal from office, but it is the first step in that direction.

If a fact-finding mission determined a case could be made for impeachment, a majority of the members of the US House of Representatives would have to agree to initiate impeachment charges against the president, before sending the matter on to the Senate.

Who starts the impeachment process?

An independent investigation led by a special counsel appointed by the US attorney general would determine if grounds existed for impeachment charges.

The investigation evidence would be transferred to the US House Judiciary Committee, which would review it and write Articles of Impeachment. The House of Representatives would debate and then vote on the articles. If a simple majority voted in favour of impeachment, then the president would be considered impeached.

How does the impeachment process reach a resolution?

The Senate then would consider the Articles of Impeachment and vote on whether to call for a trial. If a trial were held, the accused would mount his defence with the House Judiciary Committee acting as the prosecution. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would serve as the judge and the Senate would act as the jury.

If a two-thirds Senate majority voted against the president, Trump would be removed from office.

Since the impeachment process is a political matter, not a criminal one, Congress cannot impose criminal penalties on impeached officials. Criminal courts, however, may try to punish officials if they have committed crimes.

What are the grounds for impeachment?

According to the US Constitution, grounds for impeachment are “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanours.” To be impeached and removed from office, the House and Senate must find that the official committed one of these acts.

What are the chances the impeachment process will start?

It would be difficult for Trump to be impeached unless Republicans start to support this move, given the Democratic Party’s minority status in the House and the Senate.

How many US presidents have been impeached?

The only two presidents ever to have been impeached - Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton - were put in that position by the majority parties in Congress.

In 1974, Republican President Richard M. Nixon was not impeached, but resigned before what appeared an inescapable impeachment in a Congress dominated by his own Republican Party.

In 1999, Clinton avoided being removed from office after a Republican majority Senate failed to convict him of impeachment.