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How The Impeachment Process Is Similar Or Different Than A Legal Trial


The president and many Republican House members are upset with the impeachment inquiry. Many even tried to enter the room where the committee was gathering information. And even Representative Francis Rooney, Republican from Florida, asked on our air...


FRANCIS ROONEY: Well, I don't know. I mean, this impeachment is kind of whatever you decide to make of it, right? I mean, I read some things today that impeachment's whatever the House of Representatives says it is. I thought it was high crimes and misdemeanors, and that seems more of a legal thing.

CORNISH: For some clarity, we're going to sit down with NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: All right. So the Republican message is very much about the process, criticizing Democrats for, No. 1, taking testimony behind closed doors. Help us understand why testimony would be behind closed doors at this point in the process and clarifying the idea of the impeachment inquiry versus judicial trial.

DAVIS: Right. So Congress has no power to charge anyone with a crime ever. So there is no judicial aspect to this impeachment proceeding. Someone doesn't even have to be accused or convicted of a crime to be impeached. Generally, the House - the way that they're doing right now in the - behind closed doors is the investigation stage of an impeachment inquiry. If they deem impeachment is warranted, they will make a recommendation to the House Judiciary Committee, which will draft what is known as the articles of impeachment which must then go to the full House for a vote. You only need a majority threshold. And if you get that majority threshold, an individual is impeached.

CORNISH: So mostly what the House is doing is investigative, looking into what's happened and then trying to make a recommendation about whether they think there's been wrongdoing.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, impeachment is not a conviction. That's important, and I think sometimes that gets confused. I always say...

CORNISH: Yeah, so it's all this talk of lawyers and judges and - yeah.

DAVIS: Exactly. We'll get to the trial. But I always say think of impeachment more as a recommendation. It is the House weighing in on an elected official and making a public recommendation that another chamber, the Senate, make the decision to actually remove them from office.

CORNISH: Going to get to the Senate in a minute, but in terms of this impeachment inquiry, it's still on the House side. How much longer will it take, and will there be some big public airing, so to speak?

DAVIS: No one's being firm about timelines, but Democrats have been very clear that they want to wrap this up by the end of the year. That's their stated preference, although there's no hard dates on that. They are also promising public hearings. So you have to factor in public hearings, time to draft articles of impeachment, time to have floor debate.

CORNISH: And this is the part people may think of when they think of Watergate - right? - like the idea that there was a big formal hearing, you're going to hear that live.

DAVIS: Yeah, we may. We have - they haven't said when private hearings, but they expect them to happen. So I think the expectation right now is if articles of impeachment come to the floor, it's likely in December, right before Christmas.

CORNISH: What's the role of the Senate?

DAVIS: So that is actually when things get really interesting.

CORNISH: Yeah. And we should say even McConnell, I think, has been holding trainings for senators to say this is what's going to happen.

DAVIS: There's only 19 senators who are currently serving who were there for the last impeachment under Bill Clinton.

CORNISH: Only 19 (laughter).

DAVIS: Right. So a lot of this is Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, have been just starting to prep senators on how the process of this goes. If the House impeaches someone, it essentially stops the Senate in its tracks.

CORNISH: Because it is a trial, right? Is that the difference?

DAVIS: It is. It's considered a trial. The constitutional - Constitution uses the word trial. It puts the Senate on a stop. McConnell and Schumer will have some power to sort of set the terms of the trial - how many days a week do you meet, how many hours a day? Once they come to those terms, this is the interesting part about this - senators don't really talk in an impeachment proceeding. The impeachment case is made by House managers of impeachment. Senators act as jurors, and they don't speak. It's presided over by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That would be John Roberts in this case. He makes the rulings on motions. Once the Senate - once they close their arguments, the Senate meets in private to deliberate over whether they should remove someone from office. And then they have that vote on public.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sue Davis.

Thanks for explaining it to us.

DAVIS: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.