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How an impeachment inquiry works

In this image, Nadler shuts his eyes and holds his head while sitting down. Two men stand behind him, on either side of him.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) on September 19, 2019. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House will open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, in the aftermath of reports that he pressured Ukraine's president to investigate political rival Joe Biden.

The big picture: After months of what House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler described as "formal impeachment proceedings" — or months of subpoenas and committee investigations — House Democrats are officially taking the plunge.

Where it stands: House Democrats told Axios' Alayna Treene on Tuesday that leadership did not get into whether there would be a select committee — outside of House Judiciary — focused on impeachment, or how the impeachment process itself is going to work.

  • Pelosi instructed the 6 committees previously charged with investigating Trump to assemble their best cases on the president's potentially impeachable offenses for the Judiciary Committee, per several members in the Speaker's closed-door Tuesday meeting.

Between the lines: The Constitution's standards for impeachment aren't entirely specific. Impeachable offenses like "high crimes and misdemeanors" are not defined within the document — leaving them open to legal analysis. House rules regarding impeachment are mostly based on precedence and past impeachment proceedings.

How an impeachment inquiry starts:

  • As a result of various events, including receiving "information from an outside source," congressional investigations, or a House resolution introducing articles of impeachment.

The House can then begin 3 formal stages of congressional action:

  1. Authorize an impeachment inquiry by directing the Judiciary Committee to investigate the president. The committee can subpoena people or written records, and conduct hearings.
  2. The Judiciary Committee — or another specially selected committee — prepares articles of impeachment in a "markup," and reports them to the House. For the past 2 presidential impeachments, the Judiciary Committee held a public, televised markup of the impeachment articles for several days.
  3. The full House considers the articles of impeachment and, if they are adopted, appoints managers from the committee to present the articles in the Senate. On the House floor, members are encouraged to abstain from language "personally offensive" to the president.

What's next: After the Senate receives the House resolution, the Senate informs the House when it can present the articles of impeachment to the Senate — which is charged in Constitution with trying the president.

Yes, but: There is no "obvious enforcement mechanism" if the Senate majority leader refuses to hold a trial for a president who has been impeached by the House, the New York Times reports.

  • The Senate's impeachment rules of procedure dictate that the Senate will "immediately inform" the House that it is ready to receive managers to exhibit articles of impeachment.

The bottom line: Only 3 presidents have undergone impeachment proceedings. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached in the House and acquitted in the Senate, while Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.

Go deeper: Impeachment inquiry could be the best way for Democrats to get Trump documents