NEWS
23/08/2018 18:00 BST | Updated 24/08/2018 09:47 BST

Just How Much Trouble Could Trump Be In? The US Impeachment Process Explained

It's been quite a week for the President.

Donald Trump has expressed bewilderment that anyone could be considering impeaching him in the wake of the criminal convictions of two of his closest aides, as he enters the third day of a legal storm that could threaten his presidency. 

Democrats have been discussing the possibility after Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer”, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to campaign finance violations, in which he admitted paying “hush money” to two women who are alleged to have had affairs with Trump – in an apparent attempt to suppress their stories and therefore bad publicity in the run-up to the 2016 election. 

Just moments after, Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was found guilty of eight counts of fraud in a separate case, a damning moment in Trump’s already beleaguered presidency. 

But in an interview with the conservative Fox News channel, Trump rubbished the idea that the Democrats could launch impeachment proceedings against him, saying: “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job.”

So for the benefit of the President, and anyone else not totally familiar with US constitutional law, here’s a helpful guide to impeachment.

What Does Impeachment Actually Mean?

Impeachment isn’t actually the process of removing a person from elected office, but is the formal process of charging that person with a crime.

A President can be impeached but remain in office. For example, President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 by the House of Representatives for perjury, but was then acquitted by the Senate. He remained President throughout.

What’s Happened That Has Everyone Talking About It?

Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testified on Tuesday that “at the direction of” the President, he arranged six-figure “hush payments” ahead of the 2016 presidential election to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Both women have said they had affairs with Trump, which he has denied.

Cohen gave his testimony in a New York courtroom as part of a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and bank fraud.

Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that the campaign finance violations to which Cohen admitted were “not a crime”, even though prosecutors and Cohen agreed that they were. Trump made the claim without offering any evidence.

His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said the payments were personal in nature and unrelated to the campaign.

Which Crimes Are Impeachable Crimes?

The US Constitution specifies that a president can be impeached for treason, bribery or other “high crimes and misdemeanours”.

This is rather vague and “misdemeanours” has previously been defined as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”.

So basically, there’s a lot of leeway and room for interpretation.

Can The President Be Charged With A Crime While In Office?

The US Constitution does not address this. A number of legal experts have said that a president cannot be indicted while in office.

The US Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a sitting president can be charged with a crime, but in a 2000 memorandum the Department of Justice concluded that criminal proceedings would interfere with the president’s ability to carry out their job.

Other experts have said that a sitting president can be indicted, arguing that no person is above the law.

How Does The Impeachment Process Work?

The impeachment process starts in the House of Representatives. Individual members can introduce impeachment resolutions like ordinary bills, or the House can initiate proceedings by passing a resolution authorising an inquiry.

Impeachment requires a simple majority to pass the House, which is why there is talk that the Democrats could try and launch impeachment proceedings against the President after the mid-term elections, when they hope to gain a majority in the House. 

However, the removal of the president from office further requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Two American presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. In both cases, a majority of the Senate did not approve removal and they remained in office.

If a president is impeached and removed, the vice-president takes over until the next scheduled presidential election.

Is A Violation Of Campaign Finance Law An Impeachable Offence?

Legal experts disagree over whether Trump could be impeached based on the allegation that he directed Cohen to make an unlawful campaign contribution.

Congress has latitude to determine “high crimes and misdemeanours”. While it has looked to the US criminal code for guidance, it is not bound by it, legal experts have said.

Andrew Wright, a former associate counsel to former President Barack Obama, said the Cohen guilty plea was sufficient grounds to begin an impeachment investigation.

He said the constitution suggests that the country’s founders were concerned about potential abuses of power, which would include an effort to mislead the public in the run-up to an election.

Other experts have said that Trump could argue the payments to the women were not a crime, because they were made to protect Trump’s reputation, not for the purpose of influencing the election.

Even if the payments were intended to influence the election, some legal scholars have argued that campaign finance violations are typically enforced through civil penalties and do not amount to a high crime or misdemeanour. Therefore, impeachment would not be warranted.

So How Likely Is It Trump Will Be Impeached?

In an article for HuffPost UK, Amy Pope, associate fellow at Chatham House and former federal prosecutor and counsel in the US Senate, argues that despite the news this week, it is unlikely it brings impeachment closer to Trump.

“Regardless of the mounting evidence, the plea agreement and conviction do not necessarily translate into an impeachment hearing.  First and foremost, the decision to impeach – which is vested in the House of Representatives – is essentially a political decision – particularly in today’s fiercely partisan and divided Congress,” she wrote. 

“Unlike a decision made by a grand jury or trial jury, in which jury members are sworn to make decisions based on the evidence, members of Congress make no such promise.  In a House controlled by Republicans, this is manifestly so.”

But this could all change if more damaging allegations surface, or if the Democrats perform as well as they’re expected to in November’s mid-term elections.

Pope adds: “At the very least, it will give Democrats far more room to aggressively oversee the Administration and push for answers to the questions raised about the President’s conduct in these convictions.”