AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
After a full week of fulmination over a whistleblower's complaint and President Trump's phone call with a foreign leader, the Congress is suddenly consumed with talk of impeachment. So we called in NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving for some explanation for how this thing works.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Audie.
CORNISH: OK, so we have been hearing about impeachment talk for such a long time, and then it seemed to come to a dead end. But with these new allegations - right? - about the president's contact with the head of Ukraine and reports of a White House cover-up, the House speaker is treating it - this whole thing very differently, talking about an impeachment inquiry. But I thought the House Judiciary Committee was doing an impeachment inquiry. So what are we in right now? What's going on?
ELVING: The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, has been using very similar language for some period of time as his committee's been looking into various cases of resistance and noncooperation with Congress on the part of White House officials, former White House officials.
That might really better have been called a pre-impeachment sort of inquiry because five other committees were also doing something similar. And maybe House Judiciary will matter more in the long run, but what Nancy Pelosi has done for now is to unite all these investigations, kind of supersede them a little bit so as to make the lead horse House Intelligence, focusing on the Ukraine connection.
CORNISH: What does that mean going forward?
ELVING: Well, the rules get to be pretty fluid. The Constitution is characteristically vague, says the House can impeach any federal officer up to the president for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Well, good luck figuring out exactly what that means. There's been a lot of disagreement over the years. We do have precedent; not a lot, but we did have a president impeached in 1868. I missed that one.
So let's look at the two in the 20th century that I do recall firsthand. 1973, when the Senate took the first lead in investigating the president; not an impeachment inquiry, just an investigation because they'd heard a lot about this burglary at the Watergate Hotel. So these hearings went on for 14 weeks, and we learned that the president had been tape recording his conversations in the Oval Office and...
CORNISH: And those were tape recordings everyone wanted to hear.
ELVING: (Laughter) Bring on the subpoenas and 10 months of court proceedings. And along the way, the president fired the special prosecutor, fired the attorney general, the deputy attorney general. Around about that point, the House got around to saying, we need a formal impeachment inquiry. Eventually, they did draft articles of impeachment. That became an actual proceeding, and when the Supreme Court ruled Richard Nixon had to turn over those tapes, 9-0, his support in Congress among Republicans collapsed, and he resigned.
CORNISH: Fast-forward to 1998 - the House Judiciary Committee opened formal impeachment proceedings and drafted articles of impeachment after hearing from an independent counsel. That counsel, of course, was Ken Starr. What was different about that sequence?
ELVING: Starr's authority actually began with a real estate investigation that was begun by the Justice Department, and then he was empowered by a panel of federal judges who wanted to give him greater latitude. And he did move on to an expose of President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
And his report - that is, Starr's report - was delivered to Congress, prompting the House Judiciary Committee of 1998 to begin a formal impeachment inquiry - October of 1998. And that later led them to actually drafting actual articles of impeachment. Only two of the four they drafted were passed by the whole House - one for perjury and one for obstruction of justice.
CORNISH: And many people noting that President Clinton was not removed from office.
ELVING: No because impeachment by the House only operates as a charge, a kind of indictment, like a grand jury indictment. It does not convict, and it does not remove the president from office. That's up to the Senate. The Constitution says the Senate has sole power to try these charges. But here's the key - to convict and remove, you need a two-thirds majority for at least one article of impeachment.
CORNISH: So here's the context for today. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there is no chance the Senate, with its Republican majority, would convict Donald Trump, right? He's been saying this for a long time. Does McConnell even have to have a trial in the Senate if he doesn't want to?
ELVING: He says that they must. He says that they would do it. And the Constitution is a little vague; it just says they have the sole power. But every time there's been an impeachment of a federal judge or someone else, the Senate has responded to the House's charges. And politically speaking, as long as the Republican Party remains lockstep behind this president, there's no reason for McConnell to do anything but have a relatively short period of trial and have a vote that would acquit President Trump. We'll see where we are when we actually get to that point, if we actually get to that point. There are several steps to go first.
CORNISH: That's NPR's senior Washington editor correspondent Ron Elving.
Thanks for explaining it.
ELVING: Thank you, Audie.
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