Donald Trump is in some serious hot water right now.
This week, the US House of Representatives prepares to vote on whether to impeach the president, following a lengthy impeachment investigation and several public hearings.
In October, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, announced that a formal impeachment inquiry woud be carried out by Congress to determine whether the president violated his oath of office and should be removed from power.
What’s he done this time, you ask?
A complaint by an anonymous whistleblower delivered to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, alleges that Trump used a congratulatory phone call with the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, on 25 July to pressure him into investigating a corruption allegation against Democratic 2020 front-runner and his foremost challenger, Joe Biden.
Trump had accused Biden of abusing his power as Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2016 by asking the then-president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko to remove the country’s allegedly corrupt prosecutor general Viktor Shokin in order to shield his son Hunter from investigation, the latter at the time serving on the board of directors of a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, whose oligarch owner had been accused of tax evasion.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces a formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump: "No one is above the law."
— The New York Times (@The New York Times)
The accusations against the Bidens were quickly discredited, however, not least for a total lack of evidence and because the Ukrainian authorities’ concerns about Burisma pre-date Hunter Biden’s hiring in 2014.
But that did not stop the conspiracy-minded Trump campaign from pursuing the matter, with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, volunteering to fly out to visit Kiev in May in search of dirt and repeatedly raising the issue with Shokin’s successor, Yuri Lutsenko, at meetings in New York and Warsaw, Lutsenko insisting the Bidens have no case to answer.
Never a man to take “no” for an answer, Trump - who had, incidentally, just withheld almost $400m (£327m) in American military aid to Ukraine for reasons that are currently unclear - called Zelensky from the Oval Office in July to praise him for winning office and, according to a White House transcript, went on to tell his Eastern European counterpart:
I would like you to do us a favour though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it… I would like to have the attorney general [William Barr] call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.
There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great... It sounds horrible to me.
How can Trump be impeached?
The House Intelligence Committee has led the investigation into whether Trump withheld the funding to strong-arm Ukraine into conspiring to swing the 2020 election in his favour by smearing a principal rival.
That phone call, by the way, took place just one day after ex-FBI special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress on the conclusions of his 446-page report, which had essentially investigated Trump for the same offence in 2016, found 10 counts of possible obstructions of justice and explicitly stated that Trump was not exonerated, implicitly suggesting he would have been prosecuted were he not a sitting a president.
Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s House Judiciary Committee has investigated potential impeachable offences arising from the above and numerous other episodes,.
The committee has now drafted formal articles of impeachment against Trump, allowing the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives to vote on whether they consider him fit to continue as president or whether they believe he has committed “high crimes and misdemeanours” and should be removed from office. The House of Representatives are expected to vote on Trump's impeachment before Christmas.
If the House of Representatives vote to impeach Trump, the Republican-held Senate will hold a trial, needing a two-thirds majority in any subsequent vote to boot him out of the White House. No president has ever been impeached by the Senate, and a Senate trial is widely expected to acquit Trump.
But if Trump is impeached, can he run for president again in 2020?
A great deal has to be resolved before that can happen and one of the many interesting questions the situation begs is whether an impeached president can still run for office, as Trump is scheduled to do next year.
Only Andrew Jackson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 have ever been impeached before, with Richard Nixon resigning in 1974 before he could face the ordeal as a result of the Watergate scandal. That means there really is no legal precedent for the current situation.
But under Senate rules, a vote to impeach the president automatically removes them but does not explicitly bar them from holding office ever again, meaning Trump would be free to run even if he were impeached (albeit badly tarnished in the eyes of the American electorate) and take office again should he manage to pull off an unlikely victory at the ballot box.
The US Constitution states:
Judgement in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States.
But, according to Politico, the Senate could, having found him guilty, then hold a vote on disqualifying Trump from holding future office, which would require only a simple majority from the upper chamber.
This step is extremely rare, though, and has only ever been applied to three impeached US federal judges: West H Humphreys in 1862, Robert W Archibald in 1913 and G Thomas Porteous Jr in 2010.
That would leave the ball with Senate majority leader “Moscow” Mitch McConnell, nominally a Trump ally but not a man to inconvenience himself politically at the best of times.
Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.