clock menu more-arrow no yes
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leaves her office at the Capitol on September 24, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi announces a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump

“The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law,” Pelosi said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is done slow-walking an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

“I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry,” Pelosi announced on Tuesday. “The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”

Pelosi noted six existing House committees, including the Judiciary and Oversight panels, would continue their investigations of the Trump administration, now under the umbrella of this impeachment review, which was spurred by a whistleblower complaint filed against Trump regarding communications he’s had with Ukraine’s president. The House Judiciary Committee has already been in the midst of an impeachment investigation over other aspects of Trump’s conduct, having voted to approve it earlier this month. Tuesday marks a shift: An impeachment inquiry now has the speaker’s official support.

It is only the fourth time in US history that a formal impeachment process has been undertaken against a sitting president. But it’s important to note that Pelosi’s announcement — while a significant shift on the subject — does not necessarily mean the House will vote on articles of impeachment, even though some in her caucus want to take that next step.

“I believe the time is now for us to move forward some carefully crafted articles of impeachment that focus on his obstruction of Congress, his obstruction of justice, and his betrayal of the American people,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told Vox.

“I believe there’s plenty of information, data, documented behavior to justify doing that,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told Vox when asked if he’d support articles of impeachment. “I would support it if they do it.”

Pelosi’s move toward impeachment stems from a whistleblower complaint the White House has continued to withhold from Congress. The complaint was followed by reports that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business ties of Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president and current 2020 candidate Joe Biden. Subsequent reporting from the Washington Post also found that the Trump administration restricted military aid from Ukraine before his call with Zelensky this summer, spurring Democrats to question Trump’s use of federal money as potential leverage for his own personal and political gain.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer answers questions on the potential of impeachment proceedings.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) answers questions on the potential of impeachment proceedings against President Trump, on September 24, 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump has confirmed pieces of the story himself. He admitted to discussing Biden in a call with Zelensky but claims that the call was aboveboard. He tweeted on Tuesday that he has “authorized” the release of a transcript of the call. On the revelation of withholding aid, Trump has given various explanations but said he did so because he thinks other countries should also help pay for the aid.

Pelosi herself has said the Ukraine-Trump episode demonstrates the president’s corruption more clearly than other things he’s done.

“We have many other, shall we say, candidates for impeachable offense in terms of the Constitution, but this one is the most understandable by the public,” Pelosi said at a forum hosted by the Atlantic on Tuesday.

The push from leadership came after a wave of House Democrats in swing districts who had previously been opposed to impeachment came out in favor of an inquiry (25 and counting, as of Tuesday afternoon). Roughly two-thirds of the 235-person Democratic caucus, totaling more than 160 members, now support taking steps toward impeachment.

While Pelosi was previously concerned that taking up impeachment could hurt moderate members in Trump-held districts, more and more Democrats seem to feel the implications of Trump’s conduct with Ukraine are ultimately striking enough to outweigh these reservations. On Tuesday, Pelosi finally agreed.

The furor over Ukraine was a tipping point for many House Democrats

For many House Democrats, the news about Ukraine drove home a painfully clear reality: an emboldened Donald Trump is again tied to accusations of meddling in a US election.

The bombshells about Trump and Ukraine came after months of the Trump administration dodging lawmakers’ subpoenas, refusing document requests, and broadly acting like it is above Congress’s constitutionally assigned oversight.

A side-by-side picture of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Trump.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris, France, on June 17, 2019 and President Trump in Washington, DC, on September 20, 2019.
AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Ukraine gave Democrats a far more concrete example of Trump’s corruption in real time. Though Trump himself has insisted he has done nothing wrong, as he confirmed details of the reports about his call with Zelensky, his explanations for withholding the aid have shifted rapidly.

The Ukraine allegation has spurred a number of Democrats, who’d previously opposed an inquiry, to speak out. On Monday, a wave of moderate first-term Democrats from Trump-friendly districts, who up to this point have resisted liberal members’ calls for impeachment, got on board with an inquiry, penned a searing op-ed in the Washington Post. On Tuesday, additional members, including civil rights icon John Lewis, Antonio Delgado, and Lizzie Fletcher, made new calls for impeachment.

“I have been patient while we tried every other path and used every other tool,” Lewis said in a statement on the House floor. “We will never find the truth unless we use the power given to the House of Representatives, and the House alone, to begin an official investigation as dictated by the Constitution.”

The momentum from inside the caucus, in turn, put pressure on Pelosi, who has long pushed back against impeachment calls and argued that it’s politically dangerous for Democrats to go down this road. Her concern, given impeachment’s poor polling numbers, is that such action would fire up the Republican base and endanger Democrats’ House majority in 2020.

Pelosi had called for an afternoon meeting with the caucus on Tuesday, which was intended to gauge where members stood on the subject in light of recent events, but she had been taking the temperature of the caucus — particularly moderate freshmen — since the weekend. It’s clear their feedback has forced her to change her calculus.

What happens next

Though House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler has been saying they’ve been pursuing an impeachment inquiry for some time now, Pelosi’s backing is significant.

House leaders also announced they are preparing a resolution for a vote Wednesday, formally disapproving of the Trump administration’s effort to block the release of the whistleblower’s complaint into Trump’s conversations with the president of Ukraine. It’s unclear, however, whether there would be a vote of the full House to approve an impeachment inquiry (one is not required).

“There’s not a need for a house vote technically, so I don’t know what the decision is,” House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern (D-MA) told reporters.

But whether there’s a formal vote on launching an impeachment inquiry or not, it’s worth remembering an inquiry is not the same thing as voting on articles of impeachment.

An impeachment inquiry is essentially the investigation that precedes any vote in committee or on the floor of the House. In the cases of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the House conducted an impeachment inquiry before moving to pass articles of impeachment (Nixon ultimately resigned before the House voted on impeachment). This investigation will come from the existing House committees, Pelosi said today, despite initial reports she planned to ask for the creation of a House select committee to focus on impeachment. (This came as a relief to some members, who were worried the creation of a special committee would take up time and bog things down unnecessarily.)

The inquiry is important because it gives Democrats more tools to try to extract information from an unwilling Trump administration. House Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry believe it sends a strong signal to a lawless administration that has been denying Congressional requests for information. And they believe it would ultimately help bolster Democrats’ case in court.

In the Watergate era, a court said it would give more legal weight to the Senate Select Committee’s attempts to get Richard Nixon’s presidential tapes and documents if Congress brought an impeachment inquiry: “Congressional demands, if they be forthcoming, for tapes in furtherance of the more juridical constitutional process of impeachment would present wholly different considerations,” the District Court opinion from 1974 reads.

However, while an impeachment inquiry may give Democrats more legal tools and avenues to get information, it won’t necessarily make it faster. Their court cases to enforce Congressional subpoenas are taking a long time, but Trump could certainly challenge an impeachment inquiry in court as well.

Of course, House Democrats could dive into articles of impeachment sooner rather than later, but Pelosi has been clear she wants to see the facts before taking that kind of action.

Senate Republicans are likely to resist anything that damages Trump

As Pelosi has highlighted in the past, the largest obstacle to advancing impeachment proceedings is likely Senate Republicans, who are widely expected to acquit Trump of any charges if the process gets that far.

In the case that the House ultimately votes in favor of articles of impeachment, the Senate’s role will be to review the charges and decide whether or not to convict the president. It’ll take two-thirds of the Senate to vote in favor of conviction in order for that to happen, a threshold Democrats are currently unlikely to meet with their 47-member caucus in the upper chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions on the potential of impeachment proceedings.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answers questions on the potential of impeachment proceedings against President Trump, on September 24, 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Recall that in the case of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the House voted to approve two articles of impeachment while the Senate, on both counts, ultimately voted to acquit him.

To hit a 67-member supermajority this time around, Democrats would need 20 Republicans to join forces with them. Senate Republicans, for now, are suggesting other means for following up on the Ukraine allegation.

“The way to handle it in the Senate at this particular point is the acting head of DNI is coming to the Intelligence Committee on Thursday ... that’s where it all starts in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday, adding that he wouldn’t discuss taking up “hypothetical” articles of impeachment. The Senate has since unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution to give intelligence committees access to the whistleblower report.

House Democrats, meanwhile, are undeterred by the Republican response. As Pelosi’s announcement signaled on Tuesday, they’re ready to move ahead with this investigation even if it ultimately gets blocked in the Senate.

Listen to Today, Explained

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday the House will begin an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Vox’s Andrew Prokop explains how everything changed in 24 hours.

Looking for a quick way to keep up with the never-ending news cycle? Host Sean Rameswaram will guide you through the most important stories at the end of each day.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Politics & Policy

Biden’s bewildering decision to expand a Trump-era immigration policy


There need to be consequences for Rep. Lauren Boebert’s Islamophobic comments


Biden’s winter Covid plan is what a new normal might look like

View all stories in Politics & Policy

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.