I have already written two posts concerning the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump (see “Don’t Impeach Trump
” and “Slow Order for the Impeachment Train
”). Here, I want to comment on the Trump administration’s reaction to the official beginning of an impeachment inquiry and to add to what I have already said about a possible impeachment.
The Trump Attack on Impeachment
Most readers no doubt recognize that President Trump’s attack on the impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives recently announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi is diversionary and without merit. As a help to anyone who might have to argue the validity of what the House is undertaking with a member of the Trump cult, I will set forth the case for what is taking place.
Mr. Trump has argued that the pursuit of articles of impeachment by House Democrats is merely an attempt to nullify the 2016 election. On the contrary, his disparagement of the House action and his categorical refusal to allow co-operation with the inquiry by the executive branch is an attempt to nullify the Constitution itself.
Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution reads
The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.1
Reasons for impeachment are set forth in Article II, Section 4:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Not only members of the House but, judging by recent polls, a majority of voters believe that there is a reasonable case to be made that President Trump is guilty of infractions of the sort listed in Article II.
If the president is impeached by the House of Representatives, the Senate is empowered to conduct a trial of the president according to Article I, Section 3, Clause 6:
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 [sic] of the Members present.
Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 further clarifies the special status of an impeachment trial:
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Mr. Trump has referred to the action of the House as a “coup,” by which, presumably, he means a coup d'état, which dictionary.com
a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one resulting in a change of government illegally or by force.
What is happening in the House is, of course, not illegal, not being effected by force, and is certainly neither sudden nor decisive. (Only the Senate has the power to make impeachment decisive.)
Counsel for the president has called the House action “unconstitutional,” but, as illustrated above, this is not the case.
Mr. Trump has also asserted that no impeachment investigation can go forward without a vote to do so by the entire House. The Constitution is silent on such a reputed requirement and no House rule demands it.
Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, enumerates the consequences of impeachment and conviction:
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
This provision makes clear that, if a president is convicted by the Senate, acting on a bill of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives, he or she is to be removed from office and may be subject to prosecution for any crimes committed in office. Because the Senate trial need not involve actual statutory crimes, a cashiered president may or may not face legal jeopardy for actions taken while in office.
In the current circumstances, it appears that President Trump will, at a minimum, be charged with soliciting something of value for his re-election campaign from a foreign party, which is
an actual crime. If convicted by the Senate, Mr. Trump could be therefore be prosecuted after leaving office for it, for misrepresenting payment to Ms. Stormy Daniels, and for other offenses.
The removal of the president from office would, of course, elevate Vice President Mike Pence to the presidency. As noted in my earlier essays, this raises the question of whether President Pence would immediately pardon the ex-president for past and future crimes, as President Gerald Ford did for Mr. Richard Nixon after he resigned from office in the face of certain impeachment and conviction.
As it happens, President Pence would not find himself in quite the same position as Mr. Ford. This is by virtue of Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment [emphasis added].
Mr. Ford could pardon Mr. Nixon because his predecessor resigned
. Had the Senate convicted President Nixon and removed him from office, he could have been indicted and tried for obstruction of justice, etc. I see two lessons to be learned here.
First, President Trump can maintain his ability to be pardoned by a President Pence by resigning before he can be impeached and convicted. This is the Nixon strategy. As I noted previously, however, he can only be pardoned for offenses against the United States and could still be prosecuted for violating state (e.g., New York) laws. Trump’s self-importance makes resignation unlikely unless the march to conviction in the Senate seems inevitable.
Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the articles of impeachment drawn up by the House and the handling of those articles by the Senate make a difference. If the president is charged and convicted of only one offense, he could be prosecuted for that offense after leaving office, but he could be pardoned for all other crimes he may have committed. Even if the House impeaches the president for many offenses, the Senate could remove him from office by voting to endorse only one. This could allow Mr. Pence to offer his former boss at least a partial get-out-of-jail-free card.
If Trump leaves office before the end of his term, I hope that he can be indicted, convicted, and imprisoned. In reality, he is most likely to serve jail time by being beaten in the November 2020 election and prosecuted under a Democratic president. In normal times, this would seem the actions of a banana republic, but Mr. Trump’s outrageous behavior might convince citizens that he is simply receiving his just rewards.
Can Trump leave office early and not
be pardoned by Mr. Pence? Probably not. Although Mr. Pence’s pardon power is somewhat limited, Trump’s pardonable offenses are legion. Congress could pass a bill—one unlikely to become law—to the effect that a president cannot pardon a convicted or resigned president. The Supreme Could would likely find such a law unconstitutional. Alternatively, though equally unlikely, Congress could make it clear that it would consider President Pence’s pardoning Trump an impeachable offense. This would be kosher, but, removing Pence from office would install Pelosi, a Democrat, so that circumstance seems very farfetched indeed.
I continue to think that investigating Trump, even impeaching him without conviction is the best plan. Democrats in the house can build a strong case against the president. Senate Democrats are numerous enough to keep Trump from being convicted and therefore subject to later prosecution.
All references to impeachment in the United States Constitution are discussed in the above essay.
The constitutional quotations are from the National Archives