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Why Remove or Impeach Trump Now?

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday impeached President Trump for a second time, a first in American history, charging him with “incitement of insurrection” one week after he egged on a mob of supporters that stormed the Capitol while Congress met to formalize President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory.

Democrats have moved swiftly to impeach Mr. Trump after the assault, which unfolded after he told supporters at a rally near the National Mall to march on the Capitol in an effort to get Republicans to overturn his defeat. At least five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died during the siege and in the immediate aftermath.

The process is taking place with extraordinary speed and testing the bounds of the impeachment process, raising questions never contemplated before. Here’s what we know.

Impeachment is one of the weightiest tools the Constitution gives Congress to hold government officials, including the president, accountable for misconduct and abuse of power.

Members of the House consider whether to impeach the president — the equivalent of an indictment in a criminal case — and members of the Senate consider whether to remove him, holding a trial in which senators act as the jury. The test, as set by the Constitution, is whether the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The House vote requires only a simple majority of lawmakers to agree that the president has, in fact, committed high crimes and misdemeanors; the Senate vote requires a two-thirds majority.

The article, drafted by Representatives David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Ted Lieu of California, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Jerrold Nadler of New York, charged Mr. Trump with “incitement of insurrection,” saying he is guilty of “inciting violence against the government of the United States.”

The article cited Mr. Trump’s weekslong campaign to falsely discredit the results of the November election, and it quotes directly from the speech he gave on the day of the siege in which he told his supporters to go to the Capitol. “If you don’t fight like hell,” he said, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

While the House moved with remarkable speed to impeach Mr. Trump, the Senate trial to determine whether to remove him cannot begin until Jan. 19, his final full day in office. That means any conviction would almost certainly not be completed until after he leaves the White House.

Democrats have argued that Mr. Trump’s offense — using his power as the nation’s leader and commander in chief to incite an insurrection against the legislative branch — is so grave that it must be addressed, even with just a few days remaining in his term. To let it go unpunished, Democrats argued, would set a dangerous precedent of impunity for future presidents.

“Is there little time left?” Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, said during the debate. “Yes. But it is never too late to do the right thing.”

Republicans, many of whom voted to overturn the election results, have claimed that going through the impeachment process so late in Mr. Trump’s term will foster unnecessary division and that the country should move on from last week’s siege.

Conviction in an impeachment trial would not automatically disqualify Mr. Trump from future public office. But if the Senate were to convict him, the Constitution allows a subsequent vote to bar an official from holding “any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”

That vote would require only a simple majority of senators. Such a step could be an appealing prospect not just to Democrats, but also to many Republicans who either have set their sights on the presidency themselves or are convinced that it is the only thing that will purge Mr. Trump from their party. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, is said to hold the latter view.

There is no precedent, however, for disqualifying a president from future office, and the issue could end up before the Supreme Court.

Democrats who control the House can choose when to send their article of impeachment to the Senate, at which point that chamber would have to immediately move to begin the trial. But because the Senate is not scheduled to hold a regular session until Jan. 19, even if the House immediately transmitted the charge to the other side of the Capitol, an agreement between Senate Republican and Democratic leaders would be needed to take it up before then.

Mr. McConnell said on Wednesday that he would not agree to do so, meaning that the article could not be taken up until the day before Mr. Biden is sworn in. Since time is needed for the Senate to set the rules for an impeachment trial, that means the proceeding probably would not start until after Mr. Biden was president, and Democrats had operational control of the Senate.

“Given the rules, procedures, and Senate precedents that govern presidential impeachment trials, there is simply no chance that a fair or serious trial could conclude before President-elect Biden is sworn in next week,” Mr. McConnell said. “In light of this reality, I believe it will best serve our nation if Congress and the executive branch spend the next seven days completely focused on facilitating a safe inauguration and an orderly transfer of power to the incoming Biden administration.”

Once the Senate receives the impeachment charge, it must immediately take up the issue, as articles of impeachment carry the highest privilege. Under rules in place for decades, impeachment is the only issue the Senate can consider while a trial is underway; it cannot simultaneously consider other legislative business.

But Mr. Biden has asked Mr. McConnell whether it would be possible to alter that rule, allowing the Senate to conduct Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial on a parallel track to consideration of his cabinet nominees, splitting its days between the two. Mr. McConnell told Mr. Biden he would consult with the Senate parliamentarian on whether that would be possible.

If such a bifurcated process were not possible, House Democrats might choose to hold back the article to allow Mr. Biden time to win confirmation of his team before a trial got underway.

The Senate could hold a trial for Mr. Trump even after he has left office, though there is no precedent for a president being tried after his term is over. Other government officials who were impeached have been tried after they departed.

Only two presidents other than Mr. Trump have been impeached — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — and both were ultimately acquitted and completed their terms in office.

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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