Ask the Globe

You asked, we answered: The impeachment hearings

President Trump.
President Trump.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The impeachment inquiry is proceeding quickly, and it entered a new phase this week as the House Intelligence Committee began open hearings to question witnesses about President Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to open investigations into his political rivals.

The Globe wanted to know: What questions do you have about the impeachment inquiry as it moves into this new phase? So we we sought out your thoughts, and we’re answering some of your queries here. Have more questions? Ask away.

Questions have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the difference between bribery and extortion? We keep hearing these terms used interchangeably.


Federal bribery law bars officials from taking or soliciting bribes, while extortion laws bar people, including federal officials, from taking anything of value from another person by threatening that person, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti writes in Politico.

The reason people are hearing those terms tossed around is that there is an ongoing debate among Democrats about how to categorize exactly what Trump allegedly did in the Ukraine scandal — and how to connect that to the “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” mentioned as reasons for impeachment in the Constitution.

Some see Trump as possibly breaking laws against bribery and extortion, as well as campaign finance chicanery, and obstruction of justice.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the word “bribery” is gaining momentum among Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff both using it in recent days. The term has the advantage of being specifically included in the Constitution and not an undefined “high crime and misdemeanor.”

But legal analysts also point out that not all impeachable offenses have to be crimes, arguing it’s not necessary to strain to try to match Trump’s actions exactly to the elements of a crime on the law books.


One other term that you may hear is “abuse of power,” which is not a crime but has a certain ring to it.

Abuse of power is essentially “the illegitimate use of power legitimately bestowed on the individual by virtue of his office,” Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who is the author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” wrote on justsecurity.org.

How many votes would be needed to impeach President Trump?

The House of Representatives can impeach the president by a simple majority vote. “The framers and ratifiers did not want to make impeachment too hard. Hard, but not too hard,” Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, writes in “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide.”

If Trump is impeached in the House, the debate will move to the Senate, which will decide whether to remove him from office. In the Senate, the bar is higher. A two-thirds vote would be needed for the Senate to remove Trump.

The two-thirds requirement is an “important and strong safeguard,” Sunstein writes, helping to make sure a president wouldn’t have to exit office, unless there is “something close to a national consensus that he should do so.”

Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 elections and there are currently 233 Democrats, 197 Republicans, and 1 independent in the House, with four vacancies. The House voted, 232-196, in late October to formalize the inquiry. No Republicans voted in favor. Two Democrats voted against. If Democrats are convinced that Trump should impeached, he will be impeached.

On the other hand, in the Senate, there are 45 Democrats, 53 Republicans, and 2 independents who caucus with the Democrats. Democrats would need to convince a significant number of Republican senators to get to a two-thirds majority and remove Trump. So far the Republicans have shown little sign of budging.

Why aren’t the Bidens there to face questioning?

Under House Intelligence Committee rules, Republicans are allowed to call witnesses, with a subpoena if necessary. Representative Devin Nunes has called on Hunter Biden, but not his father, to testify.


But the majority has veto power over any witnesses the Republicans call. Though he has not yet explicitly rejected the request to call Biden’s son, Schiff said in a letter that he would not allow the hearings “to serve as vehicles for any Member to carry out the same sham investigations into the Bidens.”

Republicans want to bring Biden’s son before a committee to bring unflattering attention to his board seat on a Ukrainian energy company at the time his father was vice president, but there’s no evidence that either Biden engaged in any wrongdoing.

Did Mr. Schiff and his staff misstate their relations to the whistle-blower? Why can’t the guy who pulled the fire alarm testify?

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said “we have not spoken directly with the whistle-blower,” but an official told USA Today that Schiff “could have been more clear.”

A House Intelligence Committee aide was among the officials the whistle-blower reached out to, in addition to a CIA lawyer. Schiff aides advised the whistle-blower to go through proper channels, according to the New York Times, which meant filing a complaint with the inspector general, who would then determine if it was credible and urgent. And that’s what the whistle-blower did.

Schiff says he hasn’t spoken to the whistle-blower himself, and doens’t know his identity.

Now to whether he can testify: Under federal law, if a federal employee “pulls the fire alarm” through official channels rather than leaking to reporters, they are entitled to certain protections, including, to a limited extent, anonymity.


But this issue is murky. According to the New York Times, it does not appear to be illegal for Trump to out the whistle-blower, but the whistle-blower is legally protected from retaliation from his superiors, who include Trump. Lawyers for the whistle-blower say that he fears he would be put in danger if his identity was made public.

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.