U.S. President Donald Trump has been impeached for a second time, but the process to remove him from office could take place after he leaves the White House.
Democrats in the House of Representatives charged Trump with “incitement of insurrection” for his role in the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol last week.
Trump only has less than a week in office before inauguration day, at which point Joe Biden will become president.
Now that the House has voted to impeach, the process will move to the Senate for a trial — this could take place on Jan. 19 (when the chamber returns from recess). But Trump’s four-year term as president ends on Jan. 20 at noon.
So what is the point of the impeachment process if Trump is no longer in power?
House Republicans who opposed the move to impeach argued Democrats were going too far, as Trump is already on the verge of leaving office.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole said Wednesday morning that impeachment would only further divide the U.S. in the last days of Trump’s administration.
“What is the rush to impeach?” he asked. “There is no reason to rush forward like this … why put us through it when it cannot be resolved before the end of the president’s term?”
Republican Representative Jason Smith accused Democrats of acting recklessly and urged the House not to impeach Trump in order to help “heal the nation.”
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar urged other Republicans to vote to impeach Trump for inciting the riots on Capitol Hill.
“For us to be able to survive as a functioning democracy, there has to be accountability,” Omar said.
Ten House Republicans ultimately heeded Omar’s call and joined Democrats in voting to impeach.
Simon Kiss, political scientist and professor of digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University said there are a few reasons why the Democrats are pushing for impeachment and Trump’s removal from office: it’s a symbolic gesture of consequences, Trump may lose some presidential benefits and he may no longer be able to run for office (if he’s convicted by the Senate).
But whether it can legally happen is still unknown.
Can Trump be convicted if he’s out of office?
Although the impeachment process was initiated while Trump is in office, “it’s a bit of an unclear question whether a person can be convicted after he leaves office,” Kiss said.
No president has ever been convicted of impeachment charges, much less after leaving office. So these are uncharted territories, he added.
He said there was a similar case in 1876 when the Senate said “yes” we have the power to convict, even if a person has resigned their office.
In 1876, Secretary of War William Belknap was investigated by the House for corruption. But minutes before the House was set to vote on his impeachment, he handed his resignation.
The House went ahead and still voted to impeach him and the Senate had a trial. A majority voted to convict, but not the two-thirds required, so Belknap was acquitted.
“Once an impeachment begins in the House, it may continue to a Senate trial. I don’t see any constitutional problem with the Senate acting fast or slowly,” Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University North Carolina, told ABC News.
If Trump is convicted after leaving office, what are the consequences?
Ability to run for office again
Kiss said one of the consequences Trump could face is that he may not be able to run for office again.
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If Trump were convicted, the Senate could then proceed to a vote on whether to bar him from holding future federal office. That would require a simple majority vote.
Trump has previously said he may want to run for president again in 2024.
Paul Campos, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Colorado, told Reuters that even if the Senate does not convict the president, senators could hold a second, separate vote to prevent him from future office.
That would mean Democrats, who will take control of the Senate later in January, could bar Trump from running for president in 2024 even without the support of Republican senators.
Loss of presidential perks
According to the Former Presidents Act of 1958, each former president is entitled to a lifetime pension, an annual travel budget and funding for an office and staff.
If Trump is convicted by the Senate, he could be denied many of those benefits.
Kiss said Trump could lose his pension, secret service protection and travel funds if convicted.
–With files from Reuters