Twitter was uncharacteristically quiet on Donald Trump‘s end yesterday after it was announced that he is now the first US President in history to be impeached twice, and having been suspended from his social media accounts, this time there was no platform for him to express his disapproval of the charge of “incitement of insurrection”.
Last week marked a historic moment for the US after a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on 6 January, echoing the President’s false claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him. Five people were killed in the riots and Congress – which was in the process of confirming the electoral college vote count to formalise President-elect Joe Biden’s victory – was evacuated and the building locked down as armed security fought to protect lawmakers.
Scenes from the attack have gradually emerged across social media in recent days, capturing the vandalism and looting of the rioters, who were able to breach police parameters despite the use of metal barricades, tear gas and paper spray. The “protestors” – whom Joe Biden and many others have argued should instead be labelled “domestic terrorists” – scaled walls and smashed windows to gain access to the House chamber, where the electoral college vote was taking place.
While Trump was not directly involved in the riots, the President has received global condemnation for his inflammatory rhetoric in the aftermath of the 2020 election and in the lead-up to the attack itself, repeating unfounded claims of “voter fraud” resulting in the election being “stolen from him”, despite the fact that Biden won a conclusive victory with more than 7 million public votes and more than 70 electoral college votes.
Trump himself urged spectators at his “Save America” rally on the morning of the 6 January to storm the Capitol, “fight like hell” and “take back our country”, while the President’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani pushed for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump Jr. echoed previous calls for “total war”.
Almost immediately after the January 6 riots, US Democrats announced their intention to launch a second impeachment process – following the first early in 2020, for which he was ultimately acquitted for “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” after a private telephone call was leaked of the President’s suspect conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – marking the first time in US history that a President has faced impeachment charges twice.
Although he is due to leave office next week on 20 January, efforts to charge Trump are more than just a knee-jerk reaction to the violence of last week’s attack. Impeachment – if it passes the Senate, where a 100-member body will sit as a jury presided over by the chief justice of the US Supreme Court – would make life very difficult for Trump once he completes his term.
There is a common misconception that being charged with impeachment means that a sitting US President can be removed from office, but this is not true. Impeachment is not a criminal charge, but a political one, and refers only to the House of Representatives (the lower chamber of Congress) concluding that a president engaged in a “high crime or misdemeanour”. It does not actually equate to a criminal offence, which is why an impeached president can continue to stay in power even if he is “charged”.
Trump’s last impeachment charges were ultimately acquitted by the Senate – which the Republican party held a majority in at the time – which meant he did not incur any significant political or criminal consequences for his infamous phone call, but the upcoming trial on Trump’s responsibility for the Capitol riots represents a fresh threat that the charge could actually go through.
During the last impeachment trial, the House of Representatives impeached Trump the first time without a single Republican vote, but this time 10 members of Trump’s own party broke ranks to support the move.
Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the chamber and the daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, had some notably harsh words for the President:
“There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” she wrote in a statement that was frequently referred back to by Democrats during the impeachment debate on Wednesday.
While the trial will most likely not be completed in time for the culmination of Trump’s term next week, if he is convicted, the charges will likely prevent him from running for office again – a risk that Democrats would rather not take when the next election rolls around in 2024.
Trump has previously flouted his intentions to run again, but a successful impeachment charge would probably spark an additional vote from the Senate to rule this out, and potentially open up the field for alternative Republican candidates to take the opportunity which would otherwise have been nabbed by the President.
Brian Kalt, author of “Unable, The Law, Politics, and Limits of Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment,” has pointed out that Trump could attempt to run again on a technicality, but it is exceedingly unlikely that he would get enough backing from his party:
“There are people who have argued that. I think, though, as a practical matter, if they’re going to get two-thirds in the Senate against him, it would be a sign that just as a practical matter, he’s lost enough Republican support, that he’d be facing an uphill battle getting the nomination anyway”.
Besides from preventing him from running again, there are other practical arguments for launching a second impeachment trial. Lawyer James Robenalt, and John Dean, former White House counsel for President Richard Nixon, told PolitiFact that the most important reason to impeach him would be that members of Congress “perceive that Trump intends to continue to incite insurrection, which could become an armed insurrection. That threat, or the threat he might use military force at home or abroad as a pretext to stay in power, could cause them to act”.
Similarly, they warned, is the possibility that “Trump might pardon those who engaged in insurrection, or himself, or both. Those kinds of pardons would be unacceptable to the American people, but difficult to litigate in the courts because the pardon power is so broad and unlimited”.
On top of this, a successful impeachment charge would strip Trump of his post-term benefits – including an over $200,000 pension and an extensive lifetime security detail provided by the Secret Services. Under the Former Presidents Act, ex-US leaders are also entitled to a governmental allowance for office space and staff, plus reimbursed travel expenses of up to $1 million annually, as well as a funeral with full honours.
These benefits, however would not extend to a president removed by impeachment.
Assuming the impeachment charges are approved by the Senate, Trump could see his post-presidency plans turned completely upside-down, which is precisely what the Democrats – and an increasingly growing pool of Republicans – are aiming for.