Trump’s Historic Second Impeachment

Norah Hussaini, Staff Writer

As prescribed in Article 2 of the United States Constitution, a president may be impeached for treason, bribery and high crimes or misdemeanors. Former President Donald Trump was accused of committing a high crime for inciting the violent events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which led to five deaths, 140 injuries and several arrests. The second impeachment trial of Trump started on Jan. 13, 2021, a week before he left presidential office. When the trial ended,Trump was acquitted as less than the required two-thirds of the Senate voted to have him removed from office.

The question of whether Trump was exercising his right to free speech or if his role in the events at the Capitol amounted to an incitement of insurrection was a significant topic of debate in the time leading up to the trial. At the end of his speech on Jan. 6, Trump said, “We fight. We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” In addition to this, Trump also told his supporters in the very same speech that they were going to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” and make their way to the Capitol. Trump’s lawyers claim that people took these words in the wrong way and that his words were not intended to be taken literally. 

The First Amendment does not protect speech which incites violence, riots or insurrection. And while Trump’s words on that day are credited with spurring these people into action, it was not only this speech that did it. Trump fed his supporters lies about the election for weeks and then acted as if he didn’t know that they would act on his claims that Democrats were trying to take over the country. After telling his supporters to “fight like hell,” Trump told them to walk down to the Capitol and “peacefully and patriotically” make their voices heard, letting it be known that the election was stolen. The mixed messages Trump sent through his speech, as well as the lies throughout the past weeks of the election being stolen, created a storm of angry supporters who believed the election was conducted unfairly and were ready and willing to do anything necessary to overturn it. When Trump’s dangerous rhetoric does not qualify as an incitement of insurrection, it sends the message that saying similar things does not have many consequences.

The timing of the second impeachment was also a major topic of debate. Trump’s lawyers claimed that the impeachment trial was not constitutional because a non-sitting president could not be impeached. Trump’s actions were taken while he was in office, so it doesn’t matter if he was in office at the time of the trial or not. If Trump made these decisions while he was in the position of president, his actions could be representative of future behavior as well. Because the Constitution does not directly address Trump’s situation, the parts of the Constitution that could apply to his case have been interpreted many different ways. For example, Trump’s legal team has said that Article 2 of the Constitution states that an impeached and convicted president shall be removed from office, but since Trump was no longer in office after Jan. 20, the trial would happen after he left office. This would mean that he could no longer technically be removed from his position, and, therefore, the trial could not carry on after he left office. However, this argument implies that if a president was close enough to the end of his term, he could do whatever he wanted without weathering impeachment — by the time he was officially charged, he would have left office and the trial couldn’t continue.

In the past, the Senate has determined that impeachment can indeed be undertaken even after a political figure has left office. In 1876, Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached while he was out of office. This historical precedent is important because the rules of impeachment cannot be decided by a judge but only by the Senate, which relies heavily on historical precedence for its decision making. 

Historical precedent also helped to clarify high crimes and misdemeanors in the context of the trial. Trump’s defense team argued that because Trump did not commit an actual crime, what he did could not be counted as a high crime or misdemeanor. Even if Trump didn’t commit a criminal offense, many legal experts, including Democratic House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, think it may not matter because of the belief that an impeachable crime does not have to violate a law. This is because during Trump’s first impeachment, he was charged with abuse of power as well as obstruction of Congress, neither of which are crimes. 

Though Trump was acquitted, his impeachment trial raised many questions about the standards of impeachments, as well as how we will determine if an impeachment is constitutional in the coming years. With society continuously changing and evolving, it is getting harder to bend the Constitution to the circumstances of today. This also brings up questions of whether the Constitution will be resilient enough to withstand future political challenges. Trump’s impeachment may have sent shockwaves throughout America, but it has also led us to consider the changes we need to make as a nation.