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Last week, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump for “incitement of insurrection,” stemming chiefly from his remarks before a large crowd near the White House on January 6. As I have previously written, serious questions still remain as to whether those charges are valid as a matter of fact and law. But assuming they are, the question is what comes next.
Press coverage is mostly limited to tactical and political issues. On the Democratic side, the chief concerns are the timing and form of the expected trial. Should Speaker Nancy Pelosi delay sending the article of impeachment to the Senate to give House leaders more time to gather evidence to strengthen their case? Or will that delay undercut the perceived public urgency of the trial? If there is an impeachment trial, will that slow down the Senate confirmations of top cabinet officials or the passage of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda? On the Republican side, the question arises of whether individual senators should break ranks with Trump and convict him, even if most Republican voters are as strongly opposed to conviction as Democratic voters are in favor of it.
In an important sense, these questions put the cart before the horse. First, we must ask whether the Senate even has the power to try this impeachment once the president is out of office. As a textual matter, the answer is no. There are two relevant provisions in the Constitution: Article I, Section 3, and Article II, Section 4. Article I, Section 3, gives the sole power of impeachment to the Senate. First, a simple declarative sentence provides that “When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside.” The key word is “the” as in “the President.” The word “the” is used instead of the word “a.” “The” has a definite reference to the president now sitting in office, which will be Joe Biden on January 20. Once Donald Trump is out of office, he cannot be tried under this provision.