It’s finally happening – an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has begun.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to set out what this actually means.
First things first – Trump is still president and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
OK, so what’s actually happened?
On Tuesday Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the US Democratic opposition, announced the launching of a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions.
She described the Republican president’s behaviour as a “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections”.
The US constitution allows Congress to remove a president from office if lawmakers find he has committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.
Sounds serious. What did Trump do?
Calls for Trump’s impeachment have been around pretty much since he took office, but racist tweets, divulging classified intelligence to foreign powers, and generally being rather erratic, have so far failed to ignite sufficient political momentum to spark impeachment proceedings.
But the latest controversy surrounding the president is a little different.
Trump has been accused of abusing his presidential powers by asking a foreign government to undermine Democratic foe Joe Biden in order to help his own 2020 re-election campaign.
Hang on, that sounds familiar...
Yeah, it should do. The entire investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller centred around the possibility that Trump or members of his campaign sought help from the Russians to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost his chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller’s report did not uncover evidence of criminal acts in Trump’s and his campaign’s efforts to encourage Russian interference in the election, however – though it did outline multiple efforts made by the president to obstruct the investigation.
So, was it Russia again?
No, not this time.
In a phone call in July with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump is said to have asked for help investigating former vice president Biden and his son Hunter.
Ukraine has long been plagued by corruption, and Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kiev.
Trump appears to have believed he could implicate Hunter, and his father by association, in some of this corruption.
Adding to the potential seriousness of the allegations, in the days before the call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.
The timing of Trump’s decision to block the aid has raised suspicions that the president of the United States could have been using the millions of dollars as leverage, in order to convince a foreign power to dig up dirt on a political rival.
Trump has admitted discussing the Bidens in the July phone call but has denied pressuring Zelenskiy.
How do we know about this call?
The story blew into the open last week when news reports revealed that a whistleblower inside the US intelligence community was so alarmed by Trump’s actions that they went outside regular channels and reported it directly to the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson.
Trump announced on Twitter on Tuesday that he would release a transcript of his telephone call with Zelenskiy. He said the call was “totally appropriate”. On Wednesday, the White House released a summary of the call – but not a copy of the whistleblower complaint that set the ordeal in motion.
The summary shows Trump repeatedly prodded Ukraine’s new leader to work with Rudy Giuliani and the US attorney general to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump told Zelenskiy.
The topic of Biden only came up during the call after Zelenskiy said his country was “ready to buy more Javelins [portable anti-tank missiles] from the United· States for defence purposes”.
So is this the end of President Trump?
No, far from it. There is still a long way to go before Trump could potentially be removed from office.
Nancy Pelosi’s move this week to launch a formal impeachment inquiry is a significant step – it means that she has given her blessing to the process, something that she has until now been reluctant to do.
But it remains to be seen whether Democrats will decide to bring formal articles of impeachment against Trump. And even then, “impeachment” doesn’t mean that a president is automatically removed from office.
Six House committees have already been investigating alleged impropriety by Trump. They will continue to investigate, on an expedited basis, but with no specific deadline, PA Media reports.
The House Judiciary Committee would traditionally be responsible for recommending articles of impeachment against the president if the inquiry leads it to do so.
If the Judiciary panel backs impeachment, the matter then goes to the full House for a vote. Democrats control the House and its committees.
Then, if a majority of the House votes for impeachment, it goes to the Senate. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to force a president from office, which would be a daunting challenge for Democrats, given that Republicans control the upper chamber.
No president has been ousted by impeachment. Only two presidents have been impeached by the House: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton.
Both were acquitted in the Senate.
What has Donald said?
Oh, you can probably guess. It’s a “witch hunt”...
He’s being “harassed”...
And everything is basically really unfair and how dare he be investigated for his actions...
Why has Pelosi been reluctant to impeach until now?
A number of Democrats have long wanted to kick-start the impeachment process, despite the slim odds of success, but until now Pelosi has resisted opening a formal inquiry.
Next year is an election year, and Pelosi has long-believed that impeachment proceedings would distract from the issues that her party wants to highlight, such as healthcare, and also potentially damage the electoral chances of Democratic candidates in swing states.
Support for impeachment among Democratic lawmakers has been growing, however, and it accelerated this week following the reports about Trump and Ukraine.
“The president must be held accountable,“Pelosi said on Tuesday when announcing the impeachment inquiry. “No one is above the law.”