By Aisha Sembhi
Following the deadly insurrection of the United States Capitol on 6 January, the House of Representatives has voted to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time. The final vote was 232 to 197 against – of the 211 House Republicans, 10 joined the Democrats in voting to accuse the president.
Trump is the first president in US history to be impeached twice, and also the subject of half of all impeachments throughout the nation’s existence (the others being Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998, and Trump himself in late-2019). Impeachment is a process in which the House can bring charges against an elected official. This individual can then face trial in the Senate, only if a majority of the House decides to indict the individual. Essentially, the formal impeachment of Trump does not result in the automatic ejection from office – this consequence only applies should the accused be convicted of the crime.
The impeachment articles officially accuse the president of “incitement to insurrection”, and “[threatening] the integrity of the democratic system, [interfering] with the peaceful transition of power”. An impeachable offence is defined in the US Constitution as “reason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.
In this case, House Democrats refer to Trump’s impassioned speech at a Washington rally only hours prior to the storming of the Capitol, in which he decried the result of the 2020 presidential election and encouraged direct action: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”. His false claims of electoral fraud have spiralled into some personal attempts to overturn the result. Calls made to Georgia’s state senate on 2 January, demanding officials “find” enough votes to overturn the result that eventually flipped the Senate in favour of the Democrats, will be used as evidence supporting the claim that there was a perversion of the course of democracy.
Generally, the steps following impeachment by the House are straightforward. The Senate will hold a trial to determine whether the president was guilty of the accusation filed by the House. A two-thirds majority is required to remove Trump from office, though a simple majority (i.e. more than 50% in favour) would ban the accused from ever standing for public office ever again.
Almost certainly, Trump will not be removed from office before the transition of power to president-elect Joe Biden, who is due to be inaugurated on 20 January 2021. The current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reiterated that the Senate trial will begin only on 19 January, the original date the chamber was scheduled to reconvene. A common misconception is that in this instance, an impeachment trial will be inconsequential, as Trump’s term in office ends in only days and so his removal from office would be insignificant.
However, Trump can still be found guilty after Biden’s inauguration – in this situation, the penalty of losing the ability to stand for public office would still apply. Even if the Senate does not find the president guilty, they may hold separate follow-up election to again determine, by a simple majority, whether he would be able to hold public office in future. With the Senate split between the two major parties, plus the increasing number of Republicans denouncing and distancing themselves from the president, there is a reasonable chance Trump will be prevented from running seeking office again in 2024.
Additionally, Senate conviction would result in the loss of several benefits former presidents are entitled to. The 1958 Former Presidents Act states that benefits such as a $200,000 per year pension, alongside allowance for staff and personal security, will not be available to any individual removed from office after impeachment. For Trump, who appears well on his way to become the first US president found guilty of a high crime in the Senate, there is a real possibility of losing both political and financial security.
The question of whether or not Trump will face legal prosecution for his role in the Capitol insurrection remains unanswered. Impeachment is a political procedure, not a legal one, and therefore the president could still face legal charges for the exact same impeachment charges in future.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons