Washington • Only twice in American history has the House impeached a president and both times, the Senate didn’t muster enough votes to remove him from office.
Now, as Congress dives headlong into another impeachment inquiry amid the partisan vitriol that has engulfed Washington, there are a lot of questions about how — and even why — the process is set up.
The Democratic-controlled House today, Thursday, approved the eight pages of procedure for the inquiry.
It's been more than two decades since the GOP-led House impeached President Bill Clinton and 151 years since President Andrew Johnson faced the same fate, so it's not necessarily something Americans are up to speed on.
Here, in more layman terms than legalese, is your guide to impeachment.
How did we get here?
Long story short: The question is whether President Donald Trump abused his power to seek dirt on a political rival. Trump, Democrats contend, leveraged congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine as well as a meeting with the country’s president to get Ukraine to probe former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a controversial energy company there. Biden is a leading Democratic presidential candidate.
Trump says his call with Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect” and Republicans argue there was no quid pro quo, though some witnesses have said there was.
[Read more: Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams to vote to open the impeachment inquiry, release transcripts]
This whole thing took place after the lengthy investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, ended in a report that did not take up whether Trump committed a crime in possibly obstructing justice. Mueller said Justice Department policy forbid such an action. House Democrats have now seized on the Ukraine dealings as a potential way to exert its oversight of the executive branch.
How does this play out?
It seems pretty clear that the House committees charged with the inquiry will eventually forward articles of impeachment, which are essentially charges against the president. There could be a couple articles or a string, depending on their findings. The full House, with a Democratic majority, is likely to impeach Trump with a majority vote.
That sets up the more critical part of the process: The Senate trial.
Essentially, the House is the prosecutor in this situation and senators are the jury. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts — whose real title is chief justice of the United States — acts as the judge.
House Democrats, likely members of the Judiciary Committee, are called managers and present their case to the Senate and Trump's team is allowed to question witnesses or call their own.
In the end, it takes a two-thirds vote to remove the president from office. That's a big margin with Republicans controlling 53 seats. Democrats have 47, including two independent senators who caucus with the party.
Why hold hearings behind closed doors?
Think of an impeachment inquiry as the behind-the-scenes part of a criminal investigation. A detective interviews different witnesses, builds a case and then files charges. House Democrats are following the same playbook.
While Democrats say they’ll later release transcripts of interviews, at the moment, witnesses are being interviewed in a secure facility in the basement of the Capitol with occasional leaks of the testimony making their way public. Democrats say the testimony is being taken behind closed — and guarded — doors so that witnesses are not privy to what each other are saying. It’s also the same process that Republicans used in their select committee investigating the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Republicans, meanwhile, charge that the process is, well, a mess because Democrats can cherry pick testimony to leak out, making the president's actions look worse than reality, and also that other House members not on the committees involved are blocked from the hearings.
In Clinton’s case, the Republican-controlled House didn’t need to do much investigating because it had a lengthy report from independent prosecutor Ken Starr, who had, indeed, interviewed witnesses in non-public situations. The Senate also later met behind closed doors to discuss the impeachment before publicly voting (there weren’t enough votes to remove Clinton from office.)
Despite the stunt last week by some House Republicans who barged into the secure room — violating House rules — there are GOP members in the depositions, including Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.
The Constitution does not spell out how an impeachment process precisely works, leaving the House to decide its own format. In this case, House Democrats have yet to vote to formally start an impeachment inquiry — as was done with Clinton — though that isn’t required by the country’s founding document.
Where do Utah’s members of Congress stand on this?
Utah has six members of Congress, including one Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams. All five Republicans have raised concerns about the impeachment process, though Sen. Mitt Romney has said the president's actions were “troubling in the extreme.”
On the other side, Stewart has offered a full-throated defense of Trump, criticizing the process to journalists and appearing on Fox News to call the effort a partisan sham.
It’s unclear how McAdams will come down on an impeachment vote — he initially didn’t support the inquiry but later said he did. On Wednesday, McAdams said all members of Congress should have access to witness testimony, and the president should have due process rights through the process. — but Utah’s other House members are not likely to support impeaching a president from their own party. Sen. Mike Lee, an avowed strict constitutionalist, isn’t a fan of the impeachment process but is a fan of the president’s judicial picks.
Romney may be a key figure in the fight.
The freshman senator, and former Republican presidential nominee, hasn’t been a Trump defender and hasn’t bashed the impeachment process. He is also one of three GOP senators who has not signed on to a resolution to oppose the inquiry.