Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Here's a short Q&A on some of the questions surrounding congressional efforts to impeach and disqualify President Trump. (I previously posted a primer on constitutional issues related to last week's insurgency.)
Can the House impeach President Trump again?
Yes. Recall that the House impeached President Trump just last year--for abusing power by pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to boost Trump's chances of reelection, and for obstructing the House investigation into the matter. Still, there's nothing prohibiting the House from impeaching President Trump again. (The House has only impeached two other presidents in our history, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. It only impeached them once. But nothing prohibits a second impeachment.)
What happens if the House impeaches?
Alone, nothing. Remember that impeachment is a two-step process: impeachment in the House, and conviction in the Senate. Impeachment in the House requires a bare majority; conviction in the Senate requires a 2/3 vote. "Impeachment" requires both actions. So a House impeachment alone does nothing . . . except record for history that the House voted that the president committed impeachable offenses. Removal from office and disqualification from future office (see below) require the action of both chambers.
What happens if both chambers act?
Two things could happen. First, Congress (again, upon impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate) could remove the president from office. That only happens, of course, if the president is still in office. So removal would only follow if Congress acted before President Trump's term ends.
Second, Congress can disqualify the president from holding office in the future. Under past congressional practice, this takes a bare majority in both chambers (and not the 2/3 super-majority in the Senate that's required for removal). (The Constitution itself isn't clear on the vote required for disqualification. But when the Constitution isn't clear, and there's no judicial precedent, we often look to past practice to discern the meaning. Past practice on disqualification says that Congress can disqualify with a bare majority vote in both houses.)
Finally, if both chambers act, Congress sets a precedent that behavior like President Trump's is impeachable, and cause for removal and disqualification. Because of the important role that history and practice play in our constitutional tradition, this kind of precedent would be significant, and could influence the future practices of both the President and Congress.
Can Congress impeach the President after his term ends?
Probably yes. The Constitution doesn't explicitly answer this question. But the House has twice impeached officials after they left office--once in 1797 (a Senator, after he was expelled), and once in 1876 (the Secretary of War, after he left office). These precedents are a good indication that Congress could impeach President Trump after he leaves office. (Again: past practice is a good indicator of meaning when the text is silent or ambiguous, and when there's no judicial precedent.) Moreover, as a practical matter, it only makes sense that Congress could impeach an officer after the officer leaves office. Otherwise, an officer could escape removal by resigning, or committing an impeachable offense near the end of the officer's term; and the officer could entirely escape disqualification (because a vote on disqualification often occurs only after an officer leaves office).
On the other hand, some argue that Congress can only impeach a sitting officer, in short, because only a sitting officer can be removed from office.
Can President Trump pardon himself out of impeachment?
No. The pardon power does not extend to impeachments.
Moreover, President Trump probably cannot pardon himself. (The Constitution doesn't say, and there's some disagreement on this. But the Justice Department has long held the view that the president cannot pardon him- or herself, based on the background constitutional principle that no person should be a judge in their own case.)
Can President Trump sue to stop or undo an impeachment?
No. The Supreme Court has ruled that impeachments are "non-justiciable." It said that the impeachment power belongs exclusively to Congress, and that the courts lack authority to second-guess congressional judgments about impeachment and its processes.
Can Congress disqualify President Trump from future office in some other way?
Yes. The 14th Amendment, Sections 3, says that any person who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" is disqualified from holding federal and state offices, including the presidency. This would require a bare majority vote in both houses, and Congress could disqualify President Trump under the 14th Amendment after he leaves office. (Note that the current House articles of impeachment reference 14th Amendment disqualification.)