Just over a week ago, I published an essay about the upcoming Senate trial of Donald J. Trump. (See On the Upcoming Trial of Donald Trump.) The purpose of that piece was to clarify the constitutional issues related to the trial. As the trial nears, we are getting clearer pictures of the arguments that will be advanced by the prosecution and the defense. Below, I consider those arguments.
The Senate has already taken a vote as to whether it is constitutional to try a president who is no longer in office. That vote failed to head off Trump’s trial, but it is clear that Republican senators find the argument that a trial is unconstitutional an attractive one. This position allows them to sidestep the question of Donald Trump’s actual guilt and to avoid the ex-president’s notorious vindictiveness. As I wrote earlier, however, there is precedent for trying a federal officer who is no longer in office. In that instance, a failed vote on the unconstitutionality of the proceeding also occurred before the trial.
The prosecution will argue that, if the Constitution does not allow for a trial of a president who has left office, a president can misbehave with impunity in the final days of his (or her) presidency, since it takes time to vote impeachment and conduct a trial. The defense may respond that an ex-president is still subject to prosecution for actual crimes. The “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” of Article II, Section 4. however, may encompass activities that are not strictly statutory crimes and which could therefore not be charged against an ex-president. Whether Donald Trump violated existing laws—I believe he has–is a separate question.
The defense will also argue that, since Mr. Trump is no longer in office, an impeachment trial is a meaningless exercise. To this may be argued that a conviction will bring opprobrium to the defendant, which will affect public opinion and discourage inappropriate presidential behavior in the future. More importantly, the Constitution allows (though does not require) the imposition of penalties beyond cashiering the defendant, namely “disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States” (Article I, Section 3).
That Mr. Trump, if convicted, could be prevented from again running for office is a tempting penalty to Republican senators contemplating their own run for president in 2024. It may not, however, be tempting enough to compel a guilty vote. On the other hand, little notice has been taken of the word “Profit” in Article I. One can reasonably argue that ex-presidency is actually an office, as it comes with pension, allowances, and Secret Service protection. By this argument, no only does Donald Trump have a lot to lose, but he can actually be removed from office by the Senate! (It is not clear whether the House prosecutors intend to make such an argument.)
When pressed to address the alleged offenses of Mr. Trump, the defense is apparently prepared to argue that the president was simply exercising his First Amendment rights in urging the Georgia Attorney General to “find” more than 11,000 votes and instructing his obviously armed followers he had gathered in D.C. to be strong, lest they lose their country. Under the circumstances, this argument is laughable. Mr. Trump clearly suborned election fraud in Georgia and, along with other speakers at his January 6 rally, encouraged the sack of the Capitol, even if he didn’t exactly say “interrupt the Congress and kill the vice president.” Remember that calling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire is not an application of one’s free speech right. It is criminal.
Of course, the bar for conviction being so high, a not guilty verdict in the closely divided Senate is more than likely. This clearly will send the wrong message to future presidents. This miscarriage of justice can be compensated for by the charging of Donald Trump with federal crimes by the Biden Department of Justice. Indictments from the Attorney General of New York will simply be icing on the poetic justice cake.