As the U.S. Senate begins a new impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump, Hillsdale College’s politics professors expressed skepticism about its constitutionality and outcome.
According to Professor of Politics Mickey Craig, the Senate’s vote to impeach was clearly unconstitutional, in contrast to last year’s impeachment vote that passed through the U.S. House of Representatives while Trump still held office.
“My opinion is that since Donald Trump is now a private citizen and no longer president, he is no longer subject to impeachment clauses, and I think the fact that Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts has refused to preside at the Senate trial means he agrees with that,” Craig said. “It is not proper to use the impeachment clauses against a private citizen, and Trump is now a private citizen. Of course, Sen. Schumer and a majority of the U.S. Senate disagrees.”
Trump’s second impeachment trial began Feb. 9 after a 56 – 44 vote in the Senate declared it constitutional, according to CNN. Six Republicans sided with the Democrats after what Fox News described as “four hours of emotional testimony and bitter debate” on the Senate floor, as lawmakers watched a montage of scenes from the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol protest.
The Senate’s decision to move forward with the impeachment of a president who has already left office is constitutionally ambiguous, according to Associate Professor of Politics Joseph Postell.
“Since Trump is not the president, vice president, or a civil officer, he arguably is not subject to the impeachment provision,” Postell said.
On the other hand, Postell pointed out that there is historical precedent for impeaching officers who resign before their trials.
“The Senate decided in these cases that officers could not escape the trial simply by resigning,” Postell said. “But Trump did not resign to escape trial — his term ended. So the precedent may not be directly applicable.”
Some have speculated that a vote to convict would bar Trump from running for office in the future. While the Constitution states that the penalty for impeachment and removal “shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust, or Profit under the United States,” Postell pointed out there is one caveat to this.
“The goal of the impeachment trial may be to disqualify him from running for future office, but disqualification from holding ‘any office…under the United States’ may apply only to appointed, not elected positions,” he said. “So under this interpretation, Trump could still run for Congress or the presidency.”
Craig also noted the impossibility of barring Trump from running for office, but speculated that the Democrats would hold a vote anyway.
“There are probably only 55 votes in the Senate for ‘disqualifying’ Trump to hold any office in the future. It would, of course, take 67 votes for that motion to pass,” he said. “I’d say Schumer’s desire to have a trial and vote is primarily aimed at satisfying certain factions in the Democratic party’s base.”
Postell agreed that the likelihood of Trump being convicted is extremely low, given the fact that senators are no longer elected through each state’s legislature, as in the original U.S. Constitution. After the passage of the 17th amendment, senators were elected directly.
“The reason he probably won’t be convicted is that Trump is not unpopular enough in 2/3 of the senators’ districts. Now that senators are directly elected, they have less independence to act as the branch of Congress that can resist public opinion,” he explained. “And public opinion in their districts is not tilted enough against Trump to cause them to vote to convict.”
Ultimately, both Postell and Craig agree that Trump’s second impeachment — much like the first one — is more symbolic than earnest.
“Democrats are proceeding with this, I suspect, because they have to play to their own base, which wants Trump to face accountability,” Postell said. “This is illustrative of the 21st century Congress: members are more interested in taking stands on highly public issues than doing serious legislative study and work.”
Senior politics majors said Congress’ decision to pursue impeachment was a waste of time.
“I think it’s a huge waste of time and it doesn’t make sense on the part of the Democrats, because they could be pushing their policy priorities, but they’re focusing on this instead,” Clayton DeJong said.
Carl Miller said the impeachment is unconstitutional “regardless of the merits.”
“And the merits for this impeachment are severely lacking,” Miller added.
Braden VanDyke, senior class president said impeaching a former president is “neither right nor sensible.”
“It sets a dangerous precedent, it’s constitutionality and legality is unsure, and it goes directly against any alleged or intended peaceful transfer of power,” VanDyke said. “If and because impeachment is reserved for high crimes and misdemeanors, it is dangerous and irresponsible to allow it to slide into the political partisan toolbox.”
Allison Schuster contributed to this report.