The ultimate guide to the Donald Trump impeachment saga

By Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Prokop Updated: Jan 16, 2020, 2:56pm EST Published: Nov 5, 2019, 8:06am EST

The story of President Donald Trump and his impeachment reached another key moment on January 15: House Democrats delivered articles of impeachment to the Senate, setting the stage for Trump’s trial.

The impeachment saga feels complicated. There’s incremental news of the day, many players, and obscure congressional processes. But fundamentally, the set of facts and political calculations haven’t changed from the start. This explainer is meant to serve as a guide to this important story, and we’ll keep it updated as news unfolds.

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How it all started: the Ukraine affair

Why was Trump impeached?

The Trump-Ukraine scandal began in September 2019 with the revelation that an intelligence officer had filed a whistleblower complaint to the intelligence community inspector general alleging wrongdoing on the part of Trump.

The whistleblower, who we now know was a member of the CIA and detailed to the National Security Council, claimed that a phone call in July 2019 between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky set off alarm bells in the intelligence community. He writes in the complaint: “The White House officials who told me this information were deeply disturbed by what had transpired in the phone call.”

Specifically, he alleges:

In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals. The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.

The whistleblower also wrote of a possible cover-up by the White House:

In the days following the phone call, I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to “lock down” all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced — as is customary — by the White House Situation Room. This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.

The whistleblower had followed the procedure laid out in law for intelligence professionals who believe wrongdoing is taking place. Rather than leaking to the press, intelligence professionals are supposed to file a report with the inspector general. Under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, if the inspector general deems the complaint to be credible and the matter to be of “urgent concern,” he or she is supposed to forward it to the director of national intelligence, who then is required to forward the complaint to Congress within seven days.

But when Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire got the complaint, he didn’t forward it to Congress. Instead, he asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel what he should do. The office concluded that it was not a matter of urgent concern and that Maguire should therefore sit on the report. The statute does not give the director nor the Office of Legal Counsel discretion over the question of “urgent concern.” The inspector general is given this responsibility and, in this case, that assessment had already been made. Nonetheless, Maguire followed the Office of Legal Counsel’s instructions and did not forward the report. 

The existence of the report and the hold-up at the Justice Department came to light in mid-September. By September 19, we learned that the subject of the whistleblower’s report was Trump’s effort to get the government of Ukraine to gin up an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate. 

Controversy about this raged for several days, until the White House made an abrupt about-face and allowed both the whistleblower’s report and the official White House record of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky to become public on September 25 and 26. 

Since then, Trump and his allies have waged an on-again, off-again campaign to discredit the whistleblower — arguing both that he is biased against Trump and also that he didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the situation he was writing about. Trump has thrown in vague calls to unmask him.

The memo itself, however, has been almost entirely overtaken by subsequent events and corroborated by other sources. The call record appears to show exactly what the memo said it showed (see below). Testimony by senior officials have made it clear that Rudy Giuliani was deeply involved in Ukraine policy despite not holding any government position. And Trump himself in extemporaneous remarks essentially admitted that he wanted Ukraine to investigate Biden. 

I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens ... and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens. Because what happened to China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.

What did Trump actually say on this call with the president of Ukraine?

Beset by complaints that they were covering up a potentially explosive whistleblower report, the Trump White House chose to voluntarily release an official record of the phone call with Zelensky. One can only assume that key decision makers thought this would reflect well on Trump and help them move beyond the controversy. In fact, it achieved the reverse.

President Trump with Ukraine President Zelensky.

In a nutshell, the official White House record of the call shows Trump linking American foreign aid to his desire for Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden and a conspiracy about the 2016 election. When the president of Ukraine expressed a desire to follow up, Trump confirmed that his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, rather than any of the relevant diplomats, was the right person to talk to. (A national security aide on the call later testified that the record left out details that were even worse for Trump.)

According to the summary, here’s how it went down.

Zelensky asked Trump for an increase in military aid — specifically, to purchase more Javelin anti-tank missiles, useful in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its east. 

Trump responded by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” 

The favor turned out to be about two investigations Trump would like Ukraine to conduct: one involving a bizarre and unfounded theory about Ukrainian possession of a Democratic email server, the other an effort to smear the Biden family’s dealings with a Ukrainian prosecutor as corrupt.

After a few pleasantries early in the call, Trump brings up the military aid unprompted. He goes out of his way to compare US assistance to EU aid to Ukraine. “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time,” he tells Zelensky. “Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.”

Zelensky responds by asking specifically for the Javelin missiles, which Trump links to his desire for an investigation into Crowdstrike (which he wrongly believes to be owned by a wealthy Ukrainian) and “the server” he thinks Ukraine has:

ZELENSKY: I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.

TRUMP: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it. 

Zelensky tries to be polite about this request, which he can’t quite agree to since neither Crowdstrike nor “the server” has anything to do with Ukraine. Then he mentions that his assistant has been speaking to Rudy Giuliani and he hopes Giuliani will come to Kyiv for a meeting.

Trump then encourages Zelensky to talk to Giuliani, bad-mouths the US ambassador to Ukraine who Giuliani got fired, and specifically asks Zelensky to work with Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr to gin up an investigation into Hunter Biden.

TRUMP: Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy.

If you could speak to him that would be great. The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, 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. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me. 

What did the House investigate in the impeachment inquiry?

A source close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the inquiry to Vox as an attempt to understand the full scope of President Trump’s abuse of power. But ultimately, Democrats aimed for a narrow, focused impeachment inquiry. Rather than tackle the full range of potential Trump misconduct, the inquiry focused on events in the summer of 2019 relating specifically to Ukraine.

White House and Capitol building.

Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chair who led the impeachment inquiry, named four questions he intended to investigate:

1. Did Trump once again solicit foreign help in an election?

2. Did the Trump White House agree to a meeting with Ukraine on the condition that Ukraine launch investigations on behalf of Trump?  

3. Did Ukraine have reason to believe military aid was being withheld on condition of launching Trump’s investigations?

4. Has there been a cover-up of the basic facts of Trump’s conduct?

What’s Trump’s defense?

Trump’s public response to all this has been animated, even for him. He’s denied any involvement in the Ukraine plan and accused his political opponents — primarily Schiff — of treason. He and his administration maintain he’s done nothing wrong. They make two arguments:

1. “No quid pro quo”: Trump first asserted that nothing inappropriate happened on the phone call with Zelensky (he calls it “perfect” repeatedly). The official White House line is that there was no quid pro quo offered on the call. Republican allies latched onto the same line.

The White House then alleges that this is essentially all mischief ginned up by biased “deep state” operatives in the government who simply dislike Trump, with that argument being made by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller on Fox:

2. “Get over it”: On October 17, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters that it’s normal in US foreign policy for America to incentivize another country to give it what Washington wants. His comment came in response to a question about whether or not the White House withheld aid to Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv’s agreement to look into the DNC server.

He told those gathered in the White House briefing room that day to stop making such a big deal over withholding the aid. “I have news for everybody: Get over it,” he said. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

This was really the moment that the “no quid pro quo” defense died. Mulvaney, one of the most powerful people in the White House, made it crystal clear that the administration held on to the aid until Ukraine gave Washington what it wanted.

“Did he [Trump] also mention to me the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that,” Mulvaney responded to a question from ABC News’s Jon Karl. “That’s it, and that’s why we held up the money,” which amounted to nearly $400 million in training, weapons, and financial support.

To be clear, though, Mulvaney’s admission was just about the DNC server. He did not fess up to withholding aid in order to reopen a probe into the Bidens. (He also sent out a press release an hour later denying he said what he just said.)

Both of these defenses start with the false premise that Joe Biden engaged in a corrupt effort to fire Ukraine’s prosecutor to protect his son Hunter from investigation. There’s nothing wrong with asking Ukraine to crack down on corruption. Making the Bidens a focal point of that anti-corruption effort, though, is the problem, as it turns the question of Ukrainian corruption into an effort to hurt a chief Trump political rival in the 2020 election. 

What’s interesting is that Trump isn’t making the defense that a lot of Republicans would clearly be more comfortable with — that the phone call reflected an error of judgment but not a crime, that aid to Ukraine is now flowing, and that essentially Democrats are making too big a deal out of this. (A rare exception is Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has called Trump’s actions “wrong and appalling.”)

Instead, Trump insists that there was genuinely nothing wrong with anything he did. 

What does Joe Biden have to do with Ukraine, and is it corrupt? 

Back when Joe Biden was vice president, the Obama administration was trying to support Ukraine in an ongoing conflict with Russia. The administration and its European allies decided that corruption among Ukrainian officials was a major impediment to strengthening Ukraine, and that the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who’d been a controversial figure in Ukraine for some time, was a big part of the problem.

Joe Biden on the campaign trail.

The Obama administration and its European allies, with Biden playing a significant role as an emissary on behalf of the United States, pressured Ukraine to reform. That pressure escalated to the point where the United States was holding up $1 billion in loan guarantees until the Ukrainians fired Shokin. Biden was quite open about his role in this, portraying it in an August 2016 interview as if he just unilaterally made the call on suspending aid:

Well in a bizarre sense, every successful foreign-policy person from [Henry] Kissinger on, that’s what they’ve been. I don’t go in and make demands. For example, [Ukraine President] Poroshenko, I pushed him on getting rid of a corrupt [prosecutor] general. We had committed a billion dollars, I said, “Petro, you’re not getting your billion dollars. It’s OK, you can keep the [prosecutor] general. Just understand — we’re not paying if you do.”

I suspended it on the spot, to the point where our ambassador looked at me like, “Whoa, what’d you just do? Do you have the authority?” “Yeah, I got the authority. It’s not going to happen, Petro.” But I really mean it. It wasn’t a threat. I said, “Look, Petro, I understand. We’re not gonna play. It’ll hurt us the following way, so make your own call here.”

As Miriam Elder has reported for BuzzFeed, this is by most accounts an exaggeration of Biden’s role. Many officials, foreign governments, and even Senate Republicans were involved in the push to oust Shokin.

That, however, only serves to underscore that at the time there was nothing remotely controversial about trying to get Shokin fired, and nobody in the West thought it had anything to do with Hunter Biden.

But after getting fired, Shokin started to level a very specific allegation against the Bidens — namely that Joe had him sacked to protect Hunter’s sweetheart deal with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company he was allegedly investigating. It’s not clear whether or not Shokin was ever investigating Burisma at all. But even if he was, anti-Shokin sentiment was widespread in the West. Joe Biden wasn’t acting on some idiosyncratic impulse, he was reflecting the broad consensus among European governments. The handful of congressional Republicans who mentioned anything about this at the time were against Shokin.

What does this have to do with Hunter Biden?

Hunter has spent much of his life vaguely trading on his father’s name by working as a lobbyist, working as an executive at a bank that was also a major Biden donor, getting a gig on the Amtrak board he didn’t seem qualified for in any way, and eventually scoring a well-compensated gig on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Hunter Biden at a podium.

Hunter’s work was widely known in Democratic politics. In a New Yorker profile, Adam Entous writes that Hunter met with a private equity manager in China while on an official trip to Beijing with his father. “A senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he ‘was leveraging access for his benefit,’ which just wasn’t done in that White House.”

Hunter knew that his conduct was seen as a problem years before during the campaign. As Entous writes:

Hunter had heard that, during the primaries, some of Obama’s advisers had criticized him to reporters for his earmarking work. Hunter said that he wasn’t told by members of the Obama campaign to end his lobbying activities, but that he knew “the writing was on the wall.”

Hunter told his lobbying clients that he would no longer represent them, and resigned from an unpaid seat on the board of Amtrak, a role for which, Hunter said, the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had tapped him. “I wanted my father to have a clean slate,” Hunter told me. “I didn’t want to limit him in any way.”

Given his history, Hunter’s seat on a Ukrainian energy board certainly looks like trading on his father’s name.

What’s Crowdstrike and “the server”? And what is its role in the Ukraine scandal?

A subplot to both Trump’s call with Zelensky and his broader approach to Ukraine is his apparent belief that a company called Crowdstrike has ties to Ukraine and that it possibly stashed a Democratic National Committee server that was hacked during the 2016 elections. Trump would like the Ukrainians to hand this over to the US government.

This is a reference to a conspiracy theory that rolls together a couple of misperceptions.

That starts with the fact that Crowdstrike has nothing to do with Ukraine. It’s an American company whose co-founder was born in Russia but emigrated to the US as a kid. Crowdstrike was hired by the Democratic National Committee to help investigate the hacking of their email during the 2016 campaign, and Trump is disturbed by the fact that the DNC did not turn a physical server over to the FBI or anyone else. Critically, there is no server that could be hidden in Ukraine (nor would there be any reason to hide an old server there) because the DNC used a modern cloud-based distributed email setup.

But the notion Trump is alluding to is the idea that the DNC was not really hacked by Russian actors at all. Instead, that attribution was faked by the allegedly Ukraine-linked Crowdstrike, which then hid the evidence as part of a larger plot to frame both Trump and the Russian government. Trump has time and again sought to exonerate Russia of culpability for computer crimes in 2016, and his interest in Crowdstrike seems to be part of that larger agenda.

Did you know?

Donald Trump joins just two presidents in being impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate.

The process of impeachment

What is impeachment?

The House of Representatives voted on December 18th to impeach the president.

Impeachment is the House accusing the president of the United States of high crimes or misdemeanors — and the first step toward potentially removing the president from office. In this case, the House is voting on two articles on impeachment: one accusing Trump of abuse of power and another accusing him of obstructing Congress.

It’s a grave, and historically quite rare, declaration by the House that members believe the president has abused his office. And though it’s a political and not a legal process, it’s akin to a decision to “charge” the president — kicking the matter over to the Senate, which will then hold a trial to determine whether to actually remove him.

What are “high crimes and misdemeanors”?

Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution details the impeachment power: “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 more vague category of “high crimes and misdemeanors” has been treated as a sort of catch-all for either criminal activity or what Congress considers egregious abuse of office.

In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing one of his Cabinet secretaries in violation of a law passed by Congress — and also for insulting Congress. In 1974, Richard Nixon was headed toward being impeached for obstruction of justice and abuse of power related to the Watergate burglary cover-up, but he resigned before it could happen. And in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice for his effort to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing one of his Cabinet Secretaries in violation of a law passed by Congress — and also for insulting Congress.
In 1974, Richard Nixon was headed toward being impeached for obstruction of justice and abuse of power related to the Watergate burglary cover-up, but he resigned before it could happen.
And in 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice for his effort to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

A violation of the criminal code by the president isn’t technically necessary for impeachment. Historically, though, impeachment efforts that are wholly grounded in politics, without even a thin pretext of an actual crime, haven’t gotten very far.

How does the impeachment process work?

For the most recent precedents (the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts), the House Judiciary Committee took the leading role, holding hearings and gathering witness testimony, and eventually drafting their formal accusations against the president as “articles of impeachment.” The Judiciary Committee then voted to approve those articles and send them on to the full chamber. The Trump impeachment inquiry featured a hybrid process in which the Intelligence Committee did primary fact-finding, wrote a report, and then kicked the report to the Judiciary Committee, which drafted the actual articles of impeachment.

But the endpoint in the House is a vote of the full chamber on each article of impeachment. If even one article is approved by a majority, the president has been (dun dun dun ...) impeached.

What does it mean that Trump’s been impeached?

For the president, nothing happens (beyond a symbolic reprimand) if he or she is impeached. Impeachment by the House alone does not remove a president from office or do anything in particular to him. All a House impeachment vote does is turn the matter over to the people who will really decide what happens — the members of the United States Senate.

What’s the Senate’s role in the impeachment process?

The Senate holds a trial to assess the House’s charges — aimed at deciding whether to remove an impeached president from office.

In this trial, the House of Representatives acts as a prosecutor, and chooses certain “impeachment managers” to argue their case in the Senate. Then, the president’s lawyers are the defense team — the president does not have to appear in person and historically has not. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides and is responsible for making procedural rulings during the trial — but the Senate can vote to overrule his decisions.

Now, though this is referred to as a trial, it is, again, a political and not legal process, so it doesn’t have to follow the ordinary rules and practices of a criminal trial. Again, it’s up the Senate to decide how to structure it — for instance, they can call witnesses to give live testimony (as they did for Andrew Johnson), or decide not to (as they did for Bill Clinton).

At the end, though, this trial ends in a vote on each article of impeachment — to either convict or acquit the president. A vote to convict on even one article will remove the president from office.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown no interest in subpoenaing witnesses who did not testify before the House. He has indicated he’d like the proceedings to be short.

What are the chances the Senate will vote to convict Trump?

It takes a two-thirds vote of the chamber (67 out of 100 senators) to convict an impeached president. That’s a far higher threshold than an ordinary vote, and even the typical supermajority requirement in the Senate. And it has never happened in US history (though it likely would have for Nixon, if he hadn’t resigned first).

There are currently 53 Republican senators, so removing Trump would require 20 of them to defect. As of mid-December, there seems to be little appetite on the part of Republicans to vote in favor of removal.

Right now, impeachment polls moderately well, and Trump is moderately unpopular. But to inspire mass defections from Senate Republicans, the landscape would need to be overwhelmingly in favor of impeachment, and that would likely require some game-changing additional facts to come to light. 

What’s the line of succession?

If Trump is removed from office — or if he, like Nixon, resigns under pressure — the presidency falls to Vice President Mike Pence. Next in line would be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

This all gets fairly fanciful, but there are basically four constitutionally plausible scenarios

One happy coincidence of the Watergate era is that Nixon’s original vice president, Spiro Agnew, had been forced from office earlier due to an unrelated scandal. Consequently, as the Watergate investigation heated up, there was a new vice president, Gerald Ford, who hadn’t even been a member of the administration at the time the misconduct occurred. Pence, by contrast, is an important member of the Trump administration and has been a vocal defender of Trump’s conduct. Pence has also made his own phone calls to Zelensky, and while he says he’s working to get those transcripts released, that hasn’t happened yet, so we don’t know what they say. It’s at least conceivable that he will also end up implicated in the scandal. 

The Presidential Succession Act says that if the president and vice president both go down simultaneously, the speaker of the House is next in line. Senate Republicans wouldn’t vote for convictions that give the White House to Nancy Pelosi, so this is, again, a bit theoretical. But it’s worth noting that many scholars believe it was unconstitutional for Congress to write itself into the order of succession. In that case, the baton falls to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — but Pompeo was actually on the call with Zelensky that is at the heart of all this, and is otherwise deeply involved in the Ukraine issue. 

Next in line after him is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who seems essentially free and clear of any involvement with the scandal.

Did you know?

At least 20 Republicans would have to defect for the Senate to convict Trump of impeachment.

The politics of impeachment

What’s going on in the polls? Is any of this hurting Trump?

The impeachment of Donald Trump has been a hot topic of political discussion for a long time, and for a long time it was very unpopular. According to FiveThirtyEight’s comprehensive tracker of impeachment polls, in the period between the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the storm of Ukraine news, support for impeaching Trump ranged between 35 and 40 percent, with opposition consistently above 50 percent.  

That has changed since the Ukraine story became public knowledge, with support for impeaching Trump now generally a bit above opposition. Note, however, that while impeachment has gotten more popular, it lags behind overall approval of Trump’s job performance. A larger share of the public say they disapprove of Trump than those who say they want to see him impeached. 

Why did this lead to impeachment, and not the Mueller investigation?

Robert Mueller found behavior that appears to meet the factual criteria for obstruction of justice in his investigation of Trump and Russian election interference. But Mueller himself said that as a matter of policy, he wouldn’t say whether or not Trump committed a crime — and he wouldn’t make a formal recommendation on impeachment one way or another. And despite the hype around Mueller from both sides, the reality is that he was a lifelong Republican appointed to the special counsel gig by Trump’s Republican deputy attorney general — so in retrospect, it’s perhaps not so surprising that he wanted to write a thorough report and go back home rather than wage political warfare on behalf of congressional Democrats. 

Nonetheless, from the Democrats’ perspective, what this left them with was a situation in which impeachment polled poorly and the guy who’d led the investigation was unwilling to state that crimes had been committed and that the president ought to face consequences. Consequently, frontline members in tough districts became concerned that the impeachment issue could cost them their seats, and party leadership was obsessed with protecting them by keeping impeachment off the table.

Critics charged that the reason impeachment polled so poorly is that Democratic leaders wouldn’t squarely make the case that Trump had broken the law. And despite impeachment’s poor polling, the pressure did get a steadily increasing number of safe-seat Democrats to come out in favor of impeachment. 

Then the Ukraine story broke, a block of members changed their tune, and party leadership hopped on the bandwagon.  

Several factors made a difference, starting with the fact that by the time the Ukraine story broke, a large faction of House Democrats had already committed to impeachment, and all of them were under pressure from the base to do so. And the Ukraine story had several elements that Mueller’s report lacked. 

  • First, because Trump rather quickly agreed to release the write-up of his call with President Zelensky to the public, the argument became primarily about his actual conduct rather than about a “process crime” like obstruction of justice. 
  • Second, the misconduct related to the future 2020 presidential campaign so directly that saying it should be left for the campaign to resolve was untenable. 
  • Third, going back to before the whistleblower’s memo came to public attention, there had been significant Republican pushback against Trump’s failure to release aid money to Ukraine.    
  • Fourth, a Russia-focused impeachment would have ended up focused on obstruction of justice without an underlying offense. Federal prosecutors do bring cases like this (if you obstruct justice successfully, they won’t be able to prove the underlying offense), but it’s a harder sell both politically and substantively than a case that doesn’t focus on process crimes.

Democratic leaders in Congress also say the Ukraine story is in some sense simpler and easier to explain, as well as substantively worse. Long-time impeachment advocates say the real difference is simply that Democratic elected officials united behind a pro-impeachment message. Either way, the polling on impeachment did start to shift soon after the Ukraine issue became a focus of attention, and that further solidified Democrats’ determination to move forward with an inquiry.    

Beyond Mueller, there is plenty of progressive sentiment that Trump deserves to be impeached over last year’s inhumane child separation policies or his egregious use of emergency powers to poach money to finance his border wall-building project. To House members facing tough races, however, letting Trump turn the question of impeachment into a bigger ideological question about immigration policy would be handing him a win.

The Ukraine story involves a form of egregious misconduct that these House members see as politically safe to stand against, even if it’s a little distant from the core ideological concerns of progressive activists. In the impeachment context, though, that distance is a virtue — the concept of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is traditionally understood as referring to abuses of power or unfitness for office, rather than regular policy disputes. 

Is what Trump did illegal?

High crimes and misdemeanors” is not strictly a legal concept. The general thrust of the impeachment inquiry is that Trump was using his office in an inappropriate way, rather than he violated specific provisions of the US code. 

That said, there are several possible areas of criminal violation

  • Federal campaign finance law makes it illegal to “solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation” from a foreign national. The question of whether or not the president ran afoul of that law certainly seems relevant in light of what we saw in the transcript. Legality would likely end up hinging on whether or not an investigation into Hunter Biden constitutes a “thing of value” within the meaning of the statute.
  • There is also federal bribery law, which may cause problems for any public official who “corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally … in return for … being influenced in the performance of any official act.” This raises the same “thing of value” question as the campaign finance charge. What’s more, the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in McDonnell v. United States adopted an extremely narrow view of what constitutes an “official act.” A prosecutor would likely need to show a very direct and explicit linkage of military aid for Ukraine to Trump’s demands, while his defense could always note that the aid did eventually flow even without a Biden investigation.
  • What Trump was doing on the call seems to fit the ordinary language description of extortion pretty well, but the relevant federal statute here is the Hobbs Act. This specifically references “obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” Making the case that a Biden investigation would be a form of “property” seems harder than the “thing of value” requirement for the first two options.
  • Last, but by no means least, there is always the old standby of obstruction of justice. Trump has engaged in an array of counter-investigative techniques — from storing the transcript of the call on a codeword-classified server to initially blocking the release of the whistleblower complaint to threatening the whistleblower to refusing to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry — that could potentially be construed as efforts to obstruct justice. 

All of these seem somewhat tenuous as legal cases. An impeachment proceeding, however, is not a legal case. Congress is under no particular obligation to stick to the Supreme Court’s narrow view of official acts, be fussy about the meaning of “thing of value,” or take the view that property is the only thing that can be extorted. 

House Democrats ultimately settled on an obstruction charge plus a catch-all claim of “abuse of power,” arguing not that Trump’s conduct violated a specific provision of the criminal code but rather his overall constitutional responsibilities.    

 

Will this hurt Trump in 2020?

On one level, this whole caper has blown up in Trump’s face, unified a formerly divided Democratic Party into launching a formal impeachment inquiry, divided Republicans, and cost him in the polls. 

On another level, you need to squint pretty hard at the polling data thus far to see the impact. His poll numbers sunk a point or two when the Ukraine news initially broke but seem to have rebounded back as the impeachment process went on. Looking at Trump’s approval as a whole, his two worst moments were the unpopular 2018 tax law and the government shutdown in early 2019. Nothing that’s come out about Ukraine has been nearly that bad for his approval numbers.

And in a larger sense, to the extent that Trump’s goal was to hurt Joe Biden’s presidential prospects, his strategy is arguably working. Biden’s approval ratings, after all, have declined over the past several months more clearly than Trump’s have. Then again, all the main Democratic presidential candidates have suffered from declining approval numbers during the course of the campaign, so Trump’s actions may have nothing to do with that.

Cast of Characters

The most important players in the scandal

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump is facing potential impeachment for pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate his possible 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

Donald Trump

Rudy Giuliani

Trump’s personal lawyer holds no government job but has been at the center of Trump’s effort to pressure Ukrainian officials to launch those investigations.

Rudy Giuliani

George Kent

George Kent is the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian affairs bureau. He oversees the Trump administration’s policy toward Ukraine as well as several other countries in the region. He was also the senior anti-corruption coordinator in the State Department’s European bureau from 2014 to 2015, making him one of the government’s top experts on corruption in nations like Ukraine. He participated in the first public impeachment hearing on November 13.

Marie Yovanovitch

Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from August 2016 to May 2019. The State Department’s highest-ranked female ambassador, Yovanovitch received attacks from Rudy Giuliani and his allies over a false belief that she aimed to counter President Trump’s Ukraine policy and was close to Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko. That smear campaign is what led to her removal from her post months before she was scheduled to leave.

Vice President Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence met with the Ukrainian president in September as this was unfolding. Also, he’d become president if Trump were removed from office.

Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff

Mick Mulvaney carried out an instruction from Trump to freeze military aid to Ukraine — which Congress is investigating as a potential quid pro quo.

Mick Mulvaney

Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State: His State Department was heavily involved in discussions with Ukraine over all these matters, though Pompeo’s personal role remains opaque.

Mike Pompeo

Bill Barr, the Attorney General

Bill Barr: Trump told the Ukrainian president during a July phone call to get in touch with Barr to discuss investigations into Biden and the 2016 elections. Barr has denied any knowledge of this.

Bill Barr

Bill Taylor, the current top diplomat in the US embassy in Ukraine

Bill Taylor has had a lengthy diplomatic career and, in text messages, strongly expresses concerns about pushing the Ukrainians to launch investigations that would help Trump politically.

Bill Taylor

Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy

Rick Perry, former Texas governor, has taken a surprisingly large role in Ukraine policy this year, and Trump recently attempted to blame him for setting up the controversial call with the Ukrainian president. But Perry’s role in the pressure campaign remains unclear.

Rick Perry

Gordon Sondland, the Ambassador to the EU

Gordon Sondland, a donor to Trump’s inauguration, was centrally involved in Trump’s effort to get Ukraine to launch those investigations, as text messages show. When the topic of Trump blocking military aid to Ukraine comes up, Sondland tells a colleague to talk on the phone rather than text about it.

Gordon Sondland

Kurt Volker

Kurt Volker is the former US special representative to Ukraine.

Kurt Volker

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman: These two Soviet-born, Florida-based men have been Giuliani’s “fixers” in his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s rivals. Amid the scandal, they were arrested in October while trying to flee the country and charged for a separate matter — violating campaign finance law with false disclosures about their donations to Republican politicians and groups.

Lev Parnas

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president

Volodymyr Zelensky was a television sitcom star who became an unlikely candidate for the Ukrainian presidency and won the office in a landslide in April 2019. He ran as an outsider and on an anti-corruption platform — but he quickly came under pressure by President Trump to launch politicized investigations that Trump wanted.

Volodymyr Zelensky

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden took a large role in Ukraine policy during the Obama administration — and pressed the country to get rid of a prosecutor general who was widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective. Now, he’s the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in 2020, and Trump’s allies have attempted to twist his Ukraine work into something scandalous.

Joe Biden

Hunter Biden

Hunter Biden is the ne’er-do-well son of the former vice president, whose questionable ethical choices have been the subject of media scrutiny for decades. Hunter has accepted large payments from several foreign sources, and he was well compensated for serving on the board of a scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma, despite having no evident qualifications for the post. Trump has claimed that Joe Biden intervened in Ukraine policy to help his son, but there’s no evidence that that’s true.

Hunter Biden

Adam Schiff

Adam Schiff is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, unofficial leader of the multi-committee impeachment inquiry, and over the years, a frequent anti-Trump talking head on television. Trump is obsessed with pushing the idea that Schiff deserves some kind of penalty for the alleged sin of opening his first hearing on the subject with a loose paraphrase of Trump’s call with Zelensky, rather than a literal rendition of the text.

Adam Schiff

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