The impeachment inquiry: What to expect from public hearings and beyond

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent on Oct. 15, 2019, after testifying before lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP)
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent on Oct. 15, 2019, after testifying before lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP)

The House impeachment inquiry begins heating up this week, with several key observers of President Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine scheduled to speak publicly under oath for the first time.

That makes it a good moment to recap where we are now in the House impeachment process,  and what lies ahead.

How did we get here?

Democrats are weighing impeachment after news reports suggested that President Donald Trump withheld U.S. military aid from Ukraine to pressure the country into investigating his political rival, Joe Biden. Biden’s son Hunter was a director at a Ukrainian energy company when his father served as vice president. 

A complaint from an intelligence community whistleblower led to news reports that zeroed in on interactions between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. During their call, Trump is alleged to have repeatedly pressed the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens after having ordered a hold on almost $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine. (See our in-depth explainer here.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., initially announced an impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, and the first witness -- Kurt Volker, who had been Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine -- testified behind closed doors on Oct. 2.

However, Republicans complained for several weeks that the House as a whole had not approved the inquiry, as was the case in three previous presidential impeachment inquiries. Pelosi rendered this Republican argument moot when she put it to a vote of the full House on Oct. 31. The measure passed, 232-196.

What is the process?

The resolution that passed assigned the House Intelligence Committee the lead role among several committees in holding public hearings and writing up its findings. 

On Nov. 13, the Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hear public testimony from George Kent, a deputy assistant Secretary of State, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. Both previously testified in depositions about what they knew about the pressure allegedly applied to Ukraine by figures close to Trump.

On Nov. 15, the Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hear public testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, allegedly under pressure from Trump allies.

The House is also expected to release additional transcripts of depositions, continuing the practice that has led to the earlier release of the depositions of Kent, Taylor, Yovanovich and others.

Additional public hearings could be held during the week of Nov. 18, according to news reports, although the timing and the nature of the witnesses remains unclear for now.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has said that the whistleblower whose complaint set off the impeachment inquiry won’t be testifying in public.

What happens next?

Once the Intelligence Committee writes its investigative report, the focus will shift to the Judiciary Committee, perhaps in early December. 

The Judiciary Committee could hold its own public hearings; if it does, the president’s representatives would have an opportunity to participate. Eventually, the committee would move to a public vote on articles of impeachment. Any given article would need a simple majority vote from the committee to pass. 

If the full House were to approve any articles against Trump, those articles would be sent to the Senate for a trial. The House would appoint managers to argue the case to the Senate, with the chief justice of the United States presiding. Eventually, senators vote on whether to convict — that is, remove — the president, based on a two-thirds majority. Start to finish, the process could take months.

This rough timeline would suggest that any articles passed could move to the House floor for a simple-majority vote later in December. However, House Democratic officials have left their options open on timing. 

What qualifies as an impeachable offense?

Throughout the nation’s history, the House has impeached 19 individuals, primarily federal judges. Eight were convicted, four resigned before a verdict was rendered, and seven were acquitted.

The Constitution says that "the 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."

The idea of high crimes and misdemeanors goes back roughly 400 years before the drafting of the Constitution in 1787.

As the Constitution was being drafted, it took much debate before the framers settled on the definition of an impeachable offense. Eventually, George Mason suggested a wording that included "high crimes and misdemeanors," which echoed long-standing British language. 

Federalist Paper 65, written by Alexander Hamilton, refers to impeachment as stemming from "offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust."

This passage clarifies that the framers were contemplating political crimes, rather than ordinary crimes, said Philip C. Bobbitt, a University of Texas law professor and editor of an impeachment handbook.

Another way to put it is that an impeachable offense does not need to be a crime, and not all crimes qualify as impeachable offenses.

For instance, the impeachment inquiry that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 involved offenses against the public trust.

During the Nixon impeachment process, the House Judiciary Committee staff argued that "high crimes and misdemeanors" historically meant offenses like "misapplication of funds, abuse of official power, neglect of duty, encroachment on Parliament’s prerogatives, corruption, and betrayal of trust." 

The three articles of impeachment approved by the committee involved offenses surrounding obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and defiance of subpoenas.

The most famous remark about impeachment was by soon-to-be President Gerald Ford, who said, "An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."