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The impeachment primer

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on November 22, 2019 Published on November 22, 2019

To be or not to be: In US history, only two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives, although neither of them was removed from office   -  REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS

All you need to know before you sit down to watch Donald Trump’s public hearings

If you haven’t been living under a rock lately, you’d have noticed that the first round of public impeachment hearings for US President Donald Trump kicked off earlier this month — marking, among other things, one of the highest-ever viewership ratings for the C-Span YouTube channel. This after months of back-and-forth, during which Trump did his best to discredit the bureaucratic witnesses against him, while his former allies (most recently, Roger Stone) kept getting convicted by the Robert Mueller investigation.

All of which begs the question: What does ‘impeachment’ really mean? Is it the same thing as being convicted for a crime? How exactly does one go about impeaching a public servant, especially one who occupies the highest office in the land?

First off, impeachment itself means different things to different countries. In the UK, where the word comes from, it was generally used to describe the process by which you could hold a public servant accountable for “treason, bribery or other High Crimes and Misdemeanours”. And while the US does take its cues from the UK Constitution, the procedure is different. First, the House of Representatives (the lower house of Congress) has to vote for the articles of impeachment (that is, the charges) to be brought against the President. Once this is passed with a simple majority, the President is impeached but not necessarily removed from office. Next, the Senate (upper house) is convened like a court, with both sides presenting evidence. At the conclusion of these hearings, the President can be removed from office only if two-thirds of the Senate votes for it.

The crucial distinction between impeachment and civil/criminal proceedings is that the former does not pertain to personal crimes — a president cannot be impeached for, say, insurance fraud. It has to be something that affects the functioning of the presidential office. Trump’s case, therefore, is a textbook one — the charge is that during his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (plus other backchannel measures spearheaded by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney), he tried to leverage his position to get his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Joe Biden, a political rival. In other words, he tried to use his office for personal gains.

In US history, only two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives, although neither was removed from office. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, on the charge that he sought to violate the Tenure of Office Act. Some of his actions were also criticised for trying reverse the racial equality measures proposed by Abraham Lincoln. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 after it came to light that he had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — and he was accused of lying to hide this fact.

The UK has had a much more chequered history with impeachment, dating back to the 14th century. The most famous British impeachment trial was that of Warren Hastings (Governor-General of India during 1774-85). The Opposition questioned William Pitt’s government on what it perceived as unnecessary and wasteful warmongering by the East India Company. Also under scrutiny was the ‘nabob’ culture (white men returning to England after amassing wealth in the East). Edmund Burke, renowned for his oratory, led the attacks on Hastings in a now-famous opening speech (which continues to be quoted in legal syllabi around the world):

“I impeach him in the name of the English nation, whose ancient honour he has sullied. I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose rights he has trodden under foot, and whose country he has turned into a desert.”

Hastings, however, hadn’t actually filled his pockets in India — far from the image of a sneering nabob, he was in fact a bit of an aficionado of Indian cultures, and even became fluent in Bangla and passable in Persian. His legal defence nearly bankrupted him, but he was ultimately declared ‘not guilty’ in 1795.

Elsewhere in the world, too, there have been a few notable impeachment attempts in recent times. Russian President Boris Yeltsin survived two, once in 1993 and then again in 1999. Romanian President Traian Basescu was impeached by Parliament in 2007, but the country’s Constitutional Court re-appointed him President.

In India, impeachment procedures against a sitting president have never been initiated (largely due to the limited powers of this office). However, there have been impeachment attempts against High Court and Supreme Court judges — most recently, the Opposition’s unsuccessful attempt to impeach the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra in April 2018.

In 2011, impeachment hearings were initiated against Calcutta High Court Judge Soumitra Sen, following a motion by CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury. Judge Sen, who was found guilty of misappropriating ₹33 lakh when he was the court-appointed receiver in a lawsuit between the Steel Authority of India Ltd and Shipping Corporation of India, resigned after the Rajya Sabha passed the impeachment motion. Proceedings against another judge, V Ramaswami, failed in 1993 after over 200 Congress MPs abstained from voting.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will hear from more witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment proceedings. In more ways than one, this is history in the making. But perhaps, for the first time ever, it’s also riveting live television. Whether this works in favour of or against Trump remains to be seen.

Published on November 22, 2019
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