The New York Times

The New York Times 15 Nov 2019

What Is Impeachment, Anyway?

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Explosive testimony. News media frenzies. A trial in the Senate. Here is how impeachment works — and how it has played out in the past.


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“Impeachment by its nature, it’s a political process.”
“What people think is going to happen
can turn out to be very different from what happens.”
“Because it has to do with elected officials
holding another elected official to account
for their conduct.”
When the framers of the Constitution
created a process to remove a president from office,
they were well … kind of vague.
So to understand how it’s going to play out,
the past is really our best guide.
“I think we’re just all in for a really crazy ride.”
Collectively, these New York Times reporters
have covered U.S. politics for over 150 years.
“I’m also a drummer in a band, so …”
They’ve reported on past impeachment inquiries.
“Yea, I’m lost in Senate wonderland.”
And they say that the three we’ve had
so far have been full of twists and turns.
“The president of the United States
is not guilty as charged.”
In short, expect the unexpected.
First, the process.
Impeachment is technically only the initial stage.
“Common misconceptions about impeachment
are that impeachment by itself means removal from office.
It doesn’t.
The impeachment part of the process
is only the indictment that sets up a trial.”
The Constitution describes offenses
that are grounds for removing the president from office
as bribery, treason and —
“They say high crimes and misdemeanors,
which, really, is in the eye of the beholder.”
“The framers didn’t give us a guidebook to it.
They simply said,
that the House had the responsibility
for impeachment and the Senate
had the responsibility for the trial.”
One of the things missing from the Constitution?
How an impeachment inquiry should start.
And that has generally been a source of drama.
Basically, anything goes.
“In fact, in the Andrew Johnson case
they voted to impeach him without even having
drafted the articles of impeachment.”
For Richard Nixon,
his case started with several investigations
that led to public hearings.
That part of the process went on for two years,
and yielded revelation after revelation, connecting Nixon
to a politically-motivated burglary at D.N.C. headquarters —
“… located in the Watergate office building.”
— and its subsequent cover-up.
“Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any
listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?”
“I was aware of listening devices. Yes, sir.”
“This was a shocker.
Everybody in the White House recognized
how damaging this could be.”
As the House drafted articles of impeachment,
Nixon lost the support of his party.
“O.K.,
I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
“I was asked to write the farewell piece that
ran the morning after Nixon resigned.
And this is what I wrote:
The central question is how a man who won so much
could have lost so much.”
So for Nixon, it more or less ended
after the investigations.
But for Bill Clinton, that phase was just the beginning.
“This is the information.”
An independent counsel’s investigation
into his business dealings unexpectedly
turned into a very public inquiry
about his personal life.
“The idea that a president of the United States
was having an affair with a White House intern and then
a federal prosecutor was looking at that,
it was just extraordinary.”
That investigation led to public hearings
in the House Judiciary Committee.
“When the Starr Report was being delivered to Congress
it was a little bit like the O.J. chase,
only a political one.
There were two black cars.
They were being filmed live on CNN.
They were heading towards the Capitol.
We were watching it and a little bit agog.”
Public opinion is key.
And the media plays a huge part in the process.
This was definitely true for Clinton.
“You know it was just a crazy time.
We worked in the Senate press gallery."
“All your colleagues are kind of
piled on top of each other.”
“We had crummy computers, the fax machine would always break.
The printer would always break.”
After committee hearings,
the House brought formal impeachment charges.
“It was very tense.
I thought that the Saturday of the impeachment vote
in the House was one of the most tense days
I’d experienced in Washington.”
And it turned out, also, full of surprises.
“The day of impeachment arrived, everyone’s making
very impassioned speeches about whether Bill Clinton
should or should not be impeached
and Livingston rises to give an argument for
the House Republicans.
He started to talk about how Clinton could resign.”
“You, sir, may resign your post.”
“And all of a sudden people start booing and saying,
‘Resign, resign’!”
“So I must set the example.”
“He announced he was resigning
because he had had extramarital affairs
and challenged President Clinton to do
the only honorable thing, in his view —”
“I hope President Clinton will follow.”
“— to resign as well, so there was all this drama
unfolding even in the midst of impeachment.”
Then it went to the Senate for trial.
The Constitution gets a little more specific about this part.
“The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
is supposed to preside over that trial.”
“Rehnquist, he showed up in this robe he had made for himself,
which had gold stripes on the sleeves
because he liked Gilbert and Sullivan.”
“The Senate is the actual jury.”
“You will do impartial justice according
to the Constitution and laws.
So help you, God.”
“This is a copy of the rules of the Senate
for handling impeachment.
They’re actually very specific.”
“Meet six days a week.”
“Convene at noon.
The senators have to sit at their desks
and remain quiet in their role as jurors.
And not talk, which trust me, is going to be a problem for some
of the senators who are used to talking all the time.”
It’s just like a courtroom trial.
There are prosecutors who present
the case against the president.
“That was perjury.”
Only, they’re members of the House,
and they’re called managers.
Then the senators, or the jurors, vote.
And things are still, unpredictable.
“The options are guilty or not guilty.
But there was one senator —”
“Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania.”
“Under Scottish law,
there are three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty
and not proved.”
“— which is not a thing.”
“And everybody just looks, you know, how do you even
record that vote?”
In the end, there were not enough votes to oust Clinton.
“What’s amazing about this whole thing to me
wasn’t so much the constitutional process.
It was that it felt to me like the beginning of really
intense partisanship, the weaponization of partisanship.”
And here’s the thing:
An impeachment charge has never
gotten the two-thirds majority it needs in the Senate
to actually oust a president from office.
“So you could end up having a situation where
the president is impeached, acquitted
and runs for re-election and wins re-election.”
And that would be a first.
“This is my ticket to the impeachment trial
of President Bill Clinton.
I don’t think you’ll find these on StubHub.”

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