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What's going on with Trump's impeachment?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Although perhaps out of the spotlight, former President Trump’s impeachment is not quite over yet. To be precise, he has been impeached for a record-setting second time, but the Senate trial is still ongoing.

The signing of the article of impeachment, photographed by Anna Moneymaker (The New York Times)

To fully understand what is going on, it’s important to look at what exactly an impeachment is. In Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives is given the sole power of impeachment. An article of impeachment, which falls under one of three categories, is drawn up and voted on by the House. A simple majority is needed to impeach. In Article 1, Section 3, the Senate is given the sole power to try impeachments. Once an article is submitted to the Senate, the Senate becomes a “High Court of Impeachment”, where senators may consider evidence, hear witnesses, and listen to arguments by impeachment “managers” before voting to convict or acquit. In this case, a two-thirds majority is needed to convict. All civil officers, including the president and vice president, can be subjected to impeachment. It is an important part of the system of checks and balances as well as holding officials accountable. In the history of the US, impeachments have been relatively few, with presidential impeachments even fewer. To this date, there have only been three presidential impeachments. The current impeachment will become the fourth.

On January 13, no more than a week before his term ended, Donald J. Trump was impeached for “incitement of insurrection”, which falls under Crimes and Misdemeanors, by a 232-197 vote. The vote was bipartisan, with 10 Republican representatives voting in favor of impeachment — the most ever from the president’s own party. Beforehand, there were heated words from both sides of the aisle, with Democrat Joaquin Castro calling Trump “the most dangerous man to ever occupy the Oval Office” and Republican Tom McClintock arguing, “If we impeached every politician who gave a fiery speech to a crowd of partisans, this Capitol would be deserted. That’s what the president did; that is all he did.” Another item of note is the length of this impeachment proceeding compared to Trump’s first one. The first impeachment started with a formal inquiry on September 24, 2019 before the actual impeachment on December 18, and then the acquittal by the Senate on February 5. Meanwhile, the current impeachment article was introduced on January 11, just 5 days after the Capitol riot, and Trump was impeached on the 13th, only two days later.

Then, on January 25, the impeachment trial was formally triggered by the impeachment managers delivering the charge to the Senate. The next day, merely minutes after the Senate convened as a court of impeachment, Senator Rand Paul raised a constitutional objection to the proceeding — the reason being that at the time, Trump was no longer in office. This effort was defeated by a 55-45 vote, with only 5 Republicans voting to proceed. This decision follows the precedent set in 1876, where Secretary of War William Belknap resigned but was still impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. The trial was then postponed until February 9. This allows time for the House managers and the defense to work on their arguments and frees the Senate to confirm Biden’s cabinet nominees and conduct other business. Oral arguments are to begin on the 9th. Both sides have indicated wanting to compress the trial. It’s possible that they will reach a verdict by the end of that week.

Since two-thirds of the Senate is needed to convict, 17 Republican senators would be required. This is unlikely to happen for multiple reasons. First, only 5 Republicans voted to proceed with the trial. Although this may not be a definite indicator of how they will vote, it definitely doesn’t signify a good outcome for the Democrats. Also, according to a NYT survey, so far no Republicans senators have stated they will vote to convict. Out of the 50, 36 have said they will not, 13 remain undecided, and the last has not submitted a statement. Many of the undecideds have said that they will, in the words of Senator Lisa Murkowski, “listen carefully and consider the arguments of both sides, and will then announce how [they] will vote.” However, it would still require multiple senators who have already said no to change their minds.

If convicted, the Senate could then vote to disqualify Trump from serving in a future federal office. He could also lose benefits gained under the Former Presidents Act of 1958, such as a lifetime pension, annual travel budget, and funding for an office and staff. If acquitted, Donald Trump will face no consequences. Senator Tammy Duckworth has stated that “we must make it clear that there are consequences for inciting violence and fomenting insurrection”, so acquittal could set a dangerous precedent, but Senator Joni Ernst argues that conviction could have a similar effect: a standard of “using impeachment as a tool for political revenge against a private citizen.”

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