Despite a second impeachment, President Donald Trump could still seek and hold federal office in the future, including president in 2024.
On Wednesday, the Democrat-led House of Representatives approved a single article of impeachment, accusing the president of inciting the violence that led to the Jan. 6 death of one Capitol Hill police officer and a protester. Three other people died in what authorities said were medical emergencies during a violent riot that saw Trump-supporting protesters storm the Capitol and cause Congress to evacuate.
But Trump is set to leave office Jan. 20 with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. While Democrats argued that Trump is a threat to democracy, their main goal in this latest impeachment effort could be to ensure Trump never again seeks or holds elected office.
That’s a tall order, because for that to happen, the Senate must convict Trump in an impeachment trial after he leaves office, which has never happened before. Also, no sitting or ex-president has ever been convicted in a Senate impeachment trial, which requires a two-thirds majority.
If the Senate convicts Trump — presumably during a trial later this year — it could then, by simple majority, vote to disqualify him from serving in a future federal office. Article 1 of the Constitution says impeachment judgments can include “disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”
If that happens, Trump could lose some of his benefits under the Former Presidents Act of 1958. Those include a lifetime pension, an annual travel budget and funding for an office and staff. He would still be entitled to Secret Service protection, but Congress could amend the law to make sure Trump loses those benefits.
Trump was impeached by the House in late 2019 and acquitted by the Senate in February 2020 on two impeachment charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The GOP-led Senate acquitted Trump on both charges.
But this latest Trump impeachment is different. The Senate is not scheduled to be back in session until Jan. 19, and while current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly furious with the president, it’s unclear how a Senate impeachment trial would play out. The New York Times reported McConnell thinks Trump committed an impeachable offense and is glad Democrats are moving against him.
Citing unidentified people familiar with McConnell’s thinking, the Times reported McConnell believes moving against Trump will help the GOP forge a future independent of the divisive, chaotic president.
When Biden is inaugurated Jan. 20 as president, former California Sen. Kamala Harris will become vice president. With the Senate in a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats, Harris will serve as the Senate’s tiebreaker, meaning Trump’s trial will take place in a Senate far different than the one he faced in 2020.
Even now, however, it’s unclear enough Republicans would vote to convict, because two-thirds of the Senate is needed. Yet some Republicans have told Trump to resign, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse has said he would take a look at what the House approves but stopped short of committing to support it.
Other Republicans have said that impeachment would be divisive. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, long a key ally of the president, has been critical of his behavior in inciting the riots but said impeachment “will do far more harm than good.”
Only one Republican voted to convict Trump last year, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
In the wake of the Capitol riot, Democrats’ strategy has been to condemn the president’s actions swiftly but delay an impeachment trial in the Senate for 100 days. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and a top Biden ally, laid out the ideas Sunday as the country came to grips with the siege at the Capitol by Trump loyalists trying to overturn the election results.
“Let’s give President-elect Biden the 100 days he needs to get his agenda off and running,” Clyburn said.
If Trump is impeached and then convicted in a Senate trial, he will become the first former president ever convicted.
“The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack,” said U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking GOP House leader. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
In the House, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California, a top Trump ally, suggested a lighter censure instead, but that option crumbled.
The House tried first to push Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to intervene, passing a resolution Tuesday night calling on them to invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove Trump from office. The resolution urged Pence to “declare what is obvious to a horrified Nation: That the President is unable to successfully discharge the duties and powers of his office.”
Pence made it clear he would not do so, saying in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that it was “time to unite our country as we prepare to inaugurate President-elect Joe Biden.”
While some have questioned impeaching the president so close to the end of his term, there is precedent. In 1876, during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, War Secretary William Belknap was impeached by the House the day he resigned, and the Senate convened a trial months later. He was acquitted.