The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump begins today in the US Senate. One of the major questions is whether a former president like Mr. Trump can be impeached and convicted after leaving office.
One might think that this is a clear-cut constitutional question. However, such is not the case.
Arguments for and against impeachment
Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution states, “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” (my emphasis).
It would seem that a person who is no longer in office can no longer be impeached and removed from office. This is why Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) claims, “The Founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office—not an inquest against private citizens.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., SC) warns that this action “sets up a never-ending retribution.” Numerous other Republican senators agree.
As precedent, after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974, Congress ended the impeachment inquiry it had begun the previous May, believing that impeachment was no longer appropriate.
However, for a former president to be disqualified from future office, he or she must first be impeached and convicted. This fact leads some to argue that the founders meant for impeachment to apply to individuals even after they leave office and is motivating many who support Mr. Trump’s conviction. They also note that he was impeached while still in office and claim that it is necessary to hold him accountable for his alleged incitement of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
As precedent, some note that even after William Belknap resigned as secretary of war in 1876, the House voted to impeach him and the Senate chose to try him “for acts done as Secretary of War, notwithstanding his resignation of said office.” The Senate failed to convict him, however, in large part because many did not believe they had the right to convict a person after leaving office.
If you’d like to read a survey of the arguments for and against impeaching and convicting a former president, I recommend this exhaustive paper by the Congressional Research Service.
“The most competitive era of presidential politics”
Here’s an unsurprising fact: those who were Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters when he was in office are most opposed to his conviction; those who were his strongest detractors in office are most supportive of his conviction.
Such partisanship affects every dimension of our culture.
According to FiveThirtyEight, “we’re living in the most competitive era of presidential politics in the nation’s history.” The 2020 election was the ninth consecutive presidential election in which the national popular vote margin was smaller than ten percentage points. This is the longest run of single-digit margins since the end of the Civil War.
Our partisan views significantly influence our social networks and affect our willingness to date those who disagree with us. As a result of such divisiveness, it is unsurprising that only 16 percent of Americans think our democracy is working well or extremely well.
However, notice the partisan divide: before the 2020 election, 68 percent of Republicans felt that American democracy was working at least somewhat well; in January, that figure plummeted to 36 percent. Last fall, only 37 percent of Democrats felt our democracy was working at least somewhat well, compared with 70 percent today.
A prayer for our time
In response to our divided and divisive culture, God’s word calls us to hold three principles in balance:
- God’s word is truth (John 17:17). What Scripture says on subjects such as abortion, sexuality, marriage, racism, immigration, poverty, and other moral issues is what we are called to believe and promote.
- All people are fallen and broken (Romans 3:23). Lost people are not our enemies but victims of our Enemy (2 Corinthians 4:4). We are called to share truth in a spirit of love (Ephesians 4:15; 1 Peter 5:5).
- Our ultimate trust is not in ourselves but in Christ. As King David testified, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7).
As a result, followers of Jesus are to be bold in declaring and defending unpopular truth, gracious with those who disagree, and humble in dependence on our Lord. In other words, we are to be like Jesus.
If we will ask the Spirit of God to make us more like the Son of God, he will answer our prayer to the glory of God.
A breakfast I’ll never forget
I’ll close with an example.
George P. Shultz died last Saturday at the age of one hundred. He was one of only two people ever to hold four Cabinet positions in the US government, including secretary of state under President Reagan, where he helped end the Cold War. A graduate of Princeton, he served in the Marine Corps during World War II before receiving a doctorate from MIT. In addition to his remarkable government service, he taught at MIT, the University of Chicago, and Stanford.
I was privileged to sit next to Mr. Shultz and his wife at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, ten years ago. They were enormously polite and most interested in me and my work. We talked for perhaps thirty minutes before the program began.
As conservatives, they were deeply concerned about the direction of our country under the Obama administration. But the humility, respect, and grace with which they discussed the president and his policies left a lasting impression on me.
It was no wonder that we were talking at a prayer breakfast—Dr. Shultz was a “faithful eight o’clocker” at his church in California.
That morning, I heard President Obama, other well-known political leaders, and Randall Wallace, the screenwriter for Braveheart and the director of Secretariat. But I was moved most deeply by George Shultz. I left the breakfast with this conviction: if this man of faith who had lived and worked at the highest levels of global leadership could combine Christian courage and compassion, I could endeavor to do the same.
So can you.