by Kelsey Chase ’24 (she/ her), Staff Writer
Six days after the beginning of the new year, millions across America watched thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the Capitol, united in their belief that Trump should have won the election. As a result of the rampage, five people died, over 140 people were injured, Facebook and Twitter deactivated Trump’s accounts, and for the first time in history, a president was impeached for the second time.
Impeachment is separate from removal from office — as we saw twice in Trump’s term. While the House of Representatives impeached Trump with a vote of 232-to-197 on January 13th, the Senate voted to acquit him 57-to-43, failing to reach the two-thirds majority required to convict. In the month that elapsed between the two votes, a new presidential term, with a new president, had begun. This raises the question: Can a president be tried after he’s left the Oval Office?
Many say that he can be, ranging from Democrats to prominent conservative legal scholars such as the head of the Federalist Society. Trump’s lawyers centered their argument around refuting this premise, largely avoiding the accusation that his rhetoric may have provoked an insurrection. His lawyers characterized the trial as “a politically motivated witch hunt” and stated that his words were protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The lead House Manager, Representative Jamie Raskin, along with his team, argued that Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors by violating his oath of office through attacking the democratic process, endangering members of Congress, and jeopardizing national security. The prosecution pointed to how Trump has consistently made false claims about the results of the election and told his supporters that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness.” The House trial brief emphasizes the former president’s delay in telling his supporters to allay the violence, which put both Congress and national security at risk. Based on this evidence, the prosecution has charged the former president with incitement of an insurrection.
According to Dr. Andrew O’Geen, the chair of the political science department here at Davidson, “While there is no one consensus around constitutionality,” the fact that the articles of impeachment were issued and passed while he was president does lay the groundwork for a trial in the Senate, regardless if he’s still in office. There is also a precedent of prominent civil officials being impeached by the Senate after having left office: Senator William Blount in 1797 and Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876. During the Constitutional Convention, the Framers explicitly discussed their fear of a president who spared “no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected” near the end of his term and would thus necessitate an impeachment even after his termination. This coincides with Lead Impeachment Manager Representative Jamie Raskin’s warning of a “January exception”, where an acquittal sets a dangerous precedent for Trump’s successors where they can act with impunity in their last month in office.
The purpose of impeachment is typically understood as removal from office; in Trump’s case, the Constitution’s stipulation that the Senate can bar him from holding office in the future is the only relevant aspect of conviction. However, according to Dr. O’Geen, these two powers of the Senate “are typically understood to be separate.” He continued, stating that “after the removal from office, there’s the secondary question of whether or not he can hold office in the future, which gets a secondary vote and is at the discretion of the Senate to decide.” Since Trump has been acquitted, this vote will not take place unless the 14th Amendment is invoked.
The political aftermath of a second impeachment remains to be seen. An indication of the Republican Party’s position may be seen in the actions of Senator Mitch McConnell: minutes after voting to acquit him, he stated, “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.”
This speaks to the choice that Republicans faced: hold the President accountable and potentially alienate some of their supporters, or grasp onto his legacy, hoping that it would be enough to keep them politically afloat? Dr. O’Geen believes that the 43 Republican votes indicates confidence that their vote will not hurt them in the short or long term. However, the seven Republican votes – the most members of a president’s party to vote against him in an impeachment trial – indicate that there might be a Republican future that does not lie in the shadow of Trump.
The impeachment trial also posed a difficult decision for Democrats: holding Trump accountable also meant stymying some of President Biden’s policy agenda during the crucial first month of his presidency. The Democrats had to rely on the idea that, in Dr. O’Geen’s words, “There are democratic principles that should be respected even though it wasn’t necessarily beneficial politically.” The impeachment process has long been a polarizing one; each impeachment vote has taken place largely along party lines. Trump has depicted the impeachment process as a “witch-hunt”, rather than an important tenet of democracy designed to hold our leaders accountable. Dr. O’Geen emphasized that while impeachment is inherently political, regardless of party, it is vital that the United States continues to believe that our leaders must receive consequences for their actions. Ultimately, the government is that of the people and we should only hand over the reins of power when we believe our leaders to be trustworthy custodians of it.