What is the next step in the impeachment process for Trump?
The House has passed articles of impeachment against Donald Trump for a second time, but will the Senate get a chance to vote on it before he leaves office?
Wednesday 13 January 2021 will go down in infamy as the day when Donald Trump became the first President to be impeached for a second time, just a week before he leaves office. Trump was impeached for his role in the Capitol Hill riots which left five people dead, with the House passing articles of impeachment for “incitement of insurrection”.
Crucially, and unlike his first impeachment in January 2020, it was a bipartisan decision with ten Republican lawmakers splitting with the party to vote against the President. But this is only the first half of the impeachment process with the Senate still to decide whether Trump is found guilty.
Impeachment case goes to the Senate
The impeachment process is a rarely used constitutional function that allows the legislature (Congress) to remove a federal official from office and prevent them serving again. First the House of Representatives passes the articles of impeachment, and then the case is sent to the Senate for an impeachment trial.
Although Wednesday night’s House vote confirmed Trump’s impeachment, he can only be found guilty, and face punishment, in a trial in the Upper House. Article 1, Section 3 of the constitution lays out the Senate’s role in impeachment:
“The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.”
In essence, the impeached individual must be found guilty by two-thirds of the Senate (67 of the 100 members) for a conviction to be made. With their victories in the Georgia Senate runoff election the Democratic caucus now has 50 Senators, meaning that they would all have to vote to impeach and at least 17 Republicans would have to join for it to be upheld.
When will the Senate impeachment trial be held?
Not until next week at the earliest, according to a statement released by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell late Wednesday evening. The Senate is not scheduled to return until 19 January, the day before Biden’s inauguration, but the Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had called on McConnell to utilise emergency authority created in 2004 to reconvene the Senate.
But McConnell refused to do so, arguing that the importance of the issue would make it impossible to have a full Senate trial concluded before Biden takes office on the 20 January. The statement read:
"Given the rules, procedures, and Senate precedents that govern presidential impeachment trials, there is simply no chance that a fair or serious trial could conclude before President-elect Biden is sworn in next week."
The trial will therefore be held during the early stages of the Biden administration, meaning that the new President will likely have his own priorities for the Senate agenda. Having flipped the Senate Democrats are planning to pass a series of more ambitious policies than they would have managed otherwise, including a large-scale coronavirus economic relief bill that Biden is expected to announce shortly.
Also in the pipeline are the Senate confirmations of Biden’s cabinet picks, which will be needed before the Biden administration can really get off the ground. In order to carry out these tasks simultaneously President-elect Biden has enquired about the possibility of splitting the Senate session into two, meaning that the impeachment trial would only take up part of the day’s business.
What is the point of impeaching Trump after he has left office?
Impeachment is usually thought of as a way to remove someone from federal office who is unfit or unable to perform the role. Democrat lawmakers were calling for Trump to be removed as soon as possible to limit the amount of damage that he can do and to prevent him from issuing a raft of presidential pardons to associates.However given that the accused will have left office by the time that the trial concluded, why are they bothering?
The first reason for many in Congress would be the moral obligation to convict a President who they feel incited insurrection against the United States. The chaotic scenes in the Capitol have been viewed as a direct attack on democracy and come as the culmination of a sustained campaign to undermine the electoral system. Failure to punish these acts, some feel, would set a dangerous precedent.
A more practical reason to impeach Trump comes from the long-term consequences of a guilty verdict. If the Senate votes in favour of impeachment Trump will be banned from holding federal office again, disqualifying him from making another run at the presidency in 2024. He would also lose his six-figure presidential pension and other post-White House perks.