WITH LESS THAN 10 DAYS TO GO IN TRUMP’S TERM, WHY IMPEACH HIM?
What does the pride of Monroe, Michigan — General George Armstrong Custer — and an obscure 19th Century politician named William Belknap have to do with the post-presidential fate of Donald Trump?
In 1876, months before meeting his own fate at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the Montana Territory, Custer was a whistle blower. He testified before Congress, alleging corruption in the War Department. Custer’s testimony pointed directly at Secretary of War William Belknap for regularly accepting kickbacks throughout the years of the Ulysses S. Grant Administration.
The U.S. House of Representatives launched an impeachment inquiry. Belknap was cornered. Minutes before the impeachment vote was to be taken, Belknap submitted his resignation letter, tearfully and in-person, to President Grant. The House, despite the resignation, proceeded to impeach Belknap.
The Senate then set what is known as the Belknap precedent. The Senate proceeded to hold a full trial of impeachment after Belknap had left the War Department. The House impeachment managers argued that Belknap should not be allowed to escape justice by simply resigning. Ultimately, even though a majority of the Senate voted to convict Belknap on each of the articles, a two-thirds vote was needed to convict and Belknap was acquitted.
With a week to go before the Biden Inauguration, the House could impeach Trump this week on just one or more of these three controversial acts done by Trump after the November 3 election:
- His hour-long telephone call with Georgia’s Secretary of State, demanding that 11,780 votes be “recalculated” into his total, giving Trump Georgia’s 15 electoral votes (play the audio tape).
- His more than hour-long speech on the ellipse behind the White House, where, in front of tens of thousands of his cult supporters, he incited them to march to the Capitol where they committed trespass, violence, property damage, theft, riot, and insurrection, which resulted in the deaths of five persons and dozens of personal injuries (play the video of Trump’s remarks and TV coverage of the assault on the Capitol).
- His misuse of his pardon power, which by Tuesday, January 19, may include himself, his family members, White House staff, assorted bankers and accountants and employees of the Trump organization, and co-conspirators like Rudy Giuliani.
Using the Belknap precedent, the Senate could assign the House-passed articles of impeachment to the Senate Rules Committee and wait, even months, after Trump has left office, allowing the Senate to concentrate first on confirming all of Biden’s cabinet appointments and giving the new administration time to straightened out the Covid-19 vaccination program before beginning an impeachment trial. Trump’s critics are calculating how much dirt will have surfaced on Trump by then. Maybe they will even want to wait until Bob Woodward’s next book comes out on Trump’s Final Days to begin the trial.
The goal is no longer just to remove Donald Trump from office, but to make sure he can never again run for President. Article 1, Section 3, of the Constitution provides that “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than removal from office, and disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.” That means, if he wants to run for state office like Governor of New York someday, where he might be able to do another round of pardons, Trump would be free to do so.
Some Never-Trumpers like former Michigan Chamber of Commerce legal counsel Bob LaBrant even posit that Senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who have been looking ahead to 2024, might find reason to vote for Trump’s impeachment conviction and follow-up motion, disqualifying him from any future federal office.
There seems to be little promise of future success for Republicans by continuing to tie their electoral fate to an unquestioning allegiance to Donald Trump. Since Trump’s surprise electoral college upset in 2016, Republicans have lost majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2018 elections. Minority status in the House continues for the GOP after the 2020 elections. The Republican Party will lose its majority status in the U.S. Senate after Democrats won the two Georgia run-off elections on January 5, and with soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, Democrats will become the majority party on January 20. Trump lost to Biden by 7 million votes in the 2020 election and in the Electoral College by 306-232. Some Republican senators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski may even jump ship and become Independents but will caucus with the Democrats, as Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) currently do.
Republicans turning a blind eye to Trump’s authoritarian excesses and his questionable handling of a response to the COVID-19 pandemic makes no sense. Republicans made a comeback from the Watergate Scandal not by seeking a restoration or further defense of Richard Nixon but by turning the page to seek new leadership in 1980 with Ronald Reagan. Seventeen Republicans would be needed to reach 67 votes (2/3 vote) with a full Senate of 100 members, but the Constitution requires only a 2/3 vote of those senators voting on the conviction question (“ no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two thirds of the members present”).
A Trump impeachment vote would be expected to attract all 50 Democratic senators. As many as 10 Republican senators might be so fed up with Trump that they too will vote to convict.
What if another 10 Republican Senators, although reluctant to acquit the president, are simply not ready to vote to convict? What if those 10 Republicans take a “Ferris Bueller Day Off ” from their senatorial duties and do not vote on the motion to convict? You would get the 2/3 vote of those senators present, meeting the threshold necessary to convict Trump.
Next up would be a second vote to disqualify Trump from holding any future federal office. A disqualification vote is in order only if Trump has been found guilty of a high crime or misdemeanor. The disqualification motion requires only a majority vote, not the 2/3 vote required to convict.