The House of Representatives is set to vote on Wednesday to impeach Donald Trump in connection with his supporters’ violent siege on the US Capitol, with just a week to go until Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th US president.
The unprecedented move so close to the end of Mr Trump’s term would make him the first president in US history to be impeached twice, and the only one to be charged with so few days left in office.
Impeachment is the process by which the House of Representatives can bring charges against a government official, similar to a grand jury indictment in a criminal court. But it does not result in his automatic ejection from the White House.
The US constitution gives the House the “sole power of impeachment” while it is the Senate that has the “sole power to try all impeachments”. Mr Trump can only be removed from office if he is convicted in a Senate trial.
The constitution provides scant detail on what accounts for an “impeachable offence”, bar one line: “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 misdemeanours.”
The article of impeachment being voted on in the House would charge Mr Trump with “inciting violence against the government of the United States” in relation to last week’s siege on Capitol Hill.
The article alleges that Mr Trump “repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the presidential election results were the product of widespread fraud” and cites his fiery speech outside the White House delivered just hours before the angry mob stormed the Capitol.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more,” the president told the crowd in Washington last week, before they forced their way into the Capitol in a violent riot that killed at least five people.
Lawmakers also point to Mr Trump’s “prior efforts to subvert and obstruct the certification of the results” of the November 3 election, including a January 2 phone call in which the president urged Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn the result in the southern US state.
The article of impeachment claims Mr Trump “gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of government . . . threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperilled a coequal branch of government”.
Notably, the article also cites the 14th amendment to the US constitution, which prohibits anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the US from holding “any office”.
In other words, by impeaching Mr Trump, lawmakers are trying not just to eject him from the White House, but also to prevent him from ever occupying it again.
Just three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump last year. None of them were removed from office, having all been acquitted in Senate trials. But Mr Trump stands to become the first president to be impeached for the second time.
Mr Trump was impeached just over a year ago, in December 2019, on two charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Those charges stemmed from his efforts to persuade the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Mr Biden and his son Hunter during an infamous phone call between the two world leaders.
However, Mr Trump was acquitted in February following a Senate trial that saw lawmakers split along political party lines.
Two-thirds of the 100-member Senate needs to vote to convict in order for a president to be removed from office. Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator to vote to convict Mr Trump on the single charge of abuse of power in February.
The House is expected to impeach Mr Trump, given that more than 200 Democratic lawmakers have co-sponsored the article of impeachment and Democrats control the lower chamber. Five Republicans, including Liz Cheney, the highest-ranking GOP woman on Capitol Hill, said late on Tuesday they will also vote to impeach the president.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, has not said when she will send the article of impeachment to the Senate for trial. Last time Ms Pelosi waited almost a month to hand over the articles.However, she appointed a slate of impeachment managers late on Tuesday, in a move that would allow her to proceed swiftly. The managers will prosecute the case against Mr Trump during a trial in the upper chamber. Chief among them is Jamie Raskin, the Democratic congressman from Maryland who also drafted the article of impeachment.
While Republicans currently control the Senate, the balance of power will tip to the Democrats when Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are sworn in after last week’s run-off elections in Georgia and Kamala Harris is installed as US vice-president next week.
Jim Clyburn, the Democratic congressman from South Carolina and one of Ms Pelosi’s top lieutenants suggested at the weekend that the articles could be withheld until after Mr Biden’s first 100 days in office. That would give the new president time to push through his ambitious legislative agenda, including a multitrillion-dollar stimulus package to boost the pandemic-battered economy, without the shadow of an impeachment trial.
But other senior Democrats, including Steny Hoyer and Chuck Schumer, who will soon be Senate majority leader, have suggested the trial should be held as soon as possible. Mr Schumer on Tuesday cited a measure from 2004 that would allow he and Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, to reconvene the Senate.
Mr Hoyer, Ms Pelosi’s second-in-command, said on Wednesday morning that the article could be sent as soon as this week.
Convicting Mr Trump after he has left office would obviously not serve to remove him from the White House, but it could prevent him from being able to run for president or any other public office again.
Either way, it is far from clear that more than a dozen Republican senators would vote to convict Mr Trump. While some of the president’s critics within his party have not pulled their punches in recent days — even going so far as to say he should step down early — few have shown much public appetite for his impeachment.