On January 13, 2021, the House gathered to vote on the impeachment of Donald Trump on the grounds of insurrection against the United States. The movement to impeach came in the wake of the January 6 white supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol — an attack the then-president incited, encouraging supporters to stop the official certification of the presidential election results. With a majority of House members voting in the affirmative, Trump became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
Fast forward to February 9, 2021, which marked the start of Trump’s second impeachment trial. With Trump out of office, many were confused as to why lawmakers and American citizens wanted the impeachment process to continue. Ultimately, the process ended with Trump’s acquittal on February 13, but the case did reiterate how important it is to look toward both the past and the future in order to contextualize the present moment. So, let’s take a look at the history of impeachment in the U.S. and how it applied to the unprecedented events of 2021.
How Does the Impeachment Process Work?
Article II, Section IV of the Constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That is to say, the Constitution grants Congress the authority to impeach and remove the president from office. Although the process has multiple steps, it can be broken down into two main stages: impeachment, which is determined by the House, and conviction, which is determined by the Senate.
So how does the process start? After a president has committed an act that may violate their oath of office and/or be deemed an impeachable offense, as stated above, any member of the House of Representatives can introduce an impeachment resolution — or, as a whole, the House can initiate the impeachment process by passing a resolution. It should be noted that only the U.S. House of Representatives can impeach a sitting U.S. president and, in order to do so, the House must hold a majority vote on one or more of the articles of impeachment. In essence, the House is tasked with investigating whether or not there are sufficient grounds to impeach the official in question. But the seemingly straightforward process has quite a few steps.
After impeachment is introduced, the real process begins. In the House of Representatives, the House Judiciary Committee decides whether or not impeachment should proceed. If they resolve to move forward, the Chairman of the Committee proposes a resolution calling for a formal inquiry into the issue of impeachment. Once that inquiry is complete, a resolution is sent to the whole House declaring whether impeachment is warranted or not. The whole House then debates the matter and votes on each article of impeachment; if any one of the articles is approved by a majority vote, the official in question is considered impeached. However, this is merely a way of charging the official with a crime.
From there, the process — and the articles of impeachment — moves to the Senate, where the impeachment trial is held. During the trial, various members of the House serve as prosecutors, while the impeached defendant is represented by a lawyer. Additionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the proceedings while the members of the Senate act as a jury. After the House prosecutors present evidence of impeachable offenses, the Senate debates until a verdict is reached — and that verdict requires a two-thirds vote for a conviction. If the Senate convicts the official in question, they can then hold separate votes to remove the official from office and bar them from holding federal offices in the future.
Before Donald Trump, only three presidents ever faced impeachment. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted on the articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon, but, before the full House came to any decisions, Nixon resigned, thus evading a formal impeachment status. However, both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were formally impeached — though they were also both acquitted in trials held by the Senate.
On February 24, 1868, Johnson was impeached after violating the Tenure of Office Act; he dismissed his Secretary of War from office and replaced him without Senate approval. Well over a century later, Clinton was impeached on December 19, 1998 for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to what has since been dubbed the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal.
On December 18, 2019, Trump joined Johnson and Clinton’s ranks, becoming the third president to be impeached in U.S. history. The House alleged that Trump abused his power by soliciting foreign interference in order to aid his re-election bid — and then went on to obstruct Congress and the impeachment process. Like his predecessors, Trump was acquitted.
Why Did Lawmakers Move Forward with Trump’s Second Impeachment Trial?
On January 6, 2021, Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol. Five people died as a result of their seditious, violent actions. Video footage surfaced of these insurrectionists assaulting police officers, further underscoring that their “blue lives matter” rallying cry was never really about anything other than upholding white supremacy. Lawmakers — and their staff and visiting family members — were escorted to an alleged secure location, but many still feared for their lives. And, for the first time, the Confederate flag, an indisputable symbol of white supremacy and sedition, hung from the Capitol, which is something, as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Dem-NY) pointed out, that didn’t even occur during the American Civil War.
When it became apparent that Vice President Mike Pence was not going to invoke Section 4 of the 24th Amendment, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called for a second impeachment of Donald Trump. After the deadly attack on the Capitol, lawmakers felt passionately about responding with force — after all, what happens in the wake of the insurrection will set a precedent not just for years but decades to come. Politico noted that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Dem-CA) “views the invasion of the Capitol as more than just an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election by a pro-Trump mob.” The insurrectionists targeted lawmakers — those who represent the people — and attacked the very seat of democracy.
“To allow the President of the United States to incite this attack without consequence is a direct threat to the future of our democracy,” Representative John Katko (Rep-NY) tweeted. “For that reason, I cannot sit idly by without taking action. I will vote to impeach this President.” In total, nine Republicans in the House joined Democrats in voting for Trump’s impeachment on January 13, 2021. CNN dubbed it “a swift bipartisan condemnation” — and one that officially made Trump the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
What Would Trump Have Lost If He Had Been Convicted?
The day of the impeachment verdict — January 13 — was just days away from President Joe Biden’s inauguration. At the time, some wondered why impeaching Trump, who had just seven days left in his term, was so essential. Even as the trial started in February 2021, some Americans wondered if moving forward with the impeachment of a former president was the right course of action.
For folks like Representative Katko and Senator Bernie Sanders (Dem-VT), the reasons to move forward could be summed up with one word: precedent. Trump was impeached for incitement of insurrection, something that came as a result of his refusal to accept (and desire to overturn) the 2020 presidential election results. “It must be made clear that no president, now or in the future, can lead an insurrection against the U.S. government,” Sanders tweeted days after the attack on the Capitol.
In addition to not wanting other (or future) seditionists to feel emboldened, proponents of Trump’s second impeachment believed it would open the door to him losing his post-presidency benefits — and they’d be right. However, since his trial occurred after he was out of office, those ramifications would’ve looked a bit different.
“The Former Presidents Act provides ex-presidents with a number of benefits, including a $200k annual pension, a travel allowance, lifetime Secret Service detail, and more,” James Curry, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, told ABC4. Curry notes that Trump “would [have lost] the pension and other monetary benefits, but not the Secret Service protection” if he had been removed from office before January 20. While Trump retained those monetary benefits, other privileges were still on the line. If he had been convicted, the Senate could have then voted to bar him from running for office in the future.