With only a week left in his term, the House impeached President Trump, but he will probably leave office before he stands trial in the Senate. Here's how the process works.
The House today impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, a first in American history, charging him with "incitement of insurrection" one week after he egged on a mob of supporters that stormed the Capitol while Congress met to formalise President-elect Joe Biden's victory.
Democrats moved swiftly to impeach Trump after the assault, which unfolded after he told supporters at a rally near the National Mall to march on the Capitol in an effort to get Republicans to overturn his defeat. At least five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died during the siege and in the immediate aftermath.
The process is taking place with extraordinary speed and will test the bounds of the impeachment process, raising questions never contemplated before. Here's what we know.
Impeachment is one of the Constitution's gravest penalties
Impeachment is one of the weightiest tools the Constitution gives Congress to hold government officials, including the president, accountable for misconduct and abuse of power.
Members of the House consider whether to impeach the president — the equivalent of an indictment in a criminal case — and members of the Senate consider whether to remove him, holding a trial in which senators act as the jury. The test, as set by the Constitution, is whether the president has committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours."
The House vote requires only a simple majority of lawmakers to agree that the president has, in fact, committed high crimes and misdemeanours; the Senate vote requires a two-thirds majority.
The charge against Trump is 'incitement of insurrection'
The article, drafted by Representatives David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Ted Lieu of California, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Jerrold Nadler of New York, charges Trump with "incitement of insurrection," saying he is guilty of "inciting violence against the government of the United States."
The article cites Trump's weeks long campaign to falsely discredit the results of the November election, and it quotes directly from the speech he gave on the day of the siege in which he told his supporters to go to the Capitol. "If you don't fight like hell," he said, "you're not going to have a country anymore."
Proponents say impeachment is worthwhile even though Trump has only days left in office
While the House moved with remarkable speed to impeach Trump, a Senate trial to determine whether to remove him cannot begin until January 19, his final full day in office. That means any conviction would almost certainly not be completed until after he leaves the White House.
Democrats have argued that Trump's offense — using his power as the nation's leader and commander in chief to incite an insurrection against the legislative branch — is so grave that it must be addressed, even with just a few days remaining in his term. To let it go unpunished, Democrats argued, would set a dangerous precedent of impunity for future presidents.
"Is there little time left?" Representative Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader, said during the debate. "Yes. But it is never too late to do the right thing."
Republicans, many of whom voted to overturn the election results, have claimed that going through the impeachment process so late in Trump's term will foster unnecessary division and that the country should move on from last week's siege.
The biggest consequence for Trump could be disqualifying him from holding office again
Conviction in an impeachment trial would not automatically disqualify Trump from future public office. But if the Senate were to convict him, the Constitution allows a subsequent vote to bar an official from holding "any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States."
That vote would require only a simple majority of senators. Such a step could be an appealing prospect not just to Democrats, but also to many Republicans who either have set their sights on the presidency themselves or are convinced that it is the only thing that will purge Trump from their party. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, is said to hold the latter view.
There is no precedent, however, for disqualifying a president from future office, and the issue could end up before the Supreme Court.
A Senate trial most likely won't start until after Biden becomes president
Democrats who control the House can choose when to send their article of impeachment to the Senate, at which point that chamber would have to immediately move to begin the trial. But because the Senate is not scheduled to hold a regular session until January 19, even if the House immediately transmitted the charge to the other side of the Capitol, an agreement between Senate Republican and Democratic leaders would be needed to take it up before then.
McConnell said Wednesday that he would not agree to do so, meaning that the proceeding could not be taken up until the day before Biden is sworn in. Since time is needed for the Senate to set the rules for an impeachment trial, that means the proceeding probably would not start until after Biden was president, and Democrats had operational control of the Senate.
A trial could consume the Senate during Biden's first days in office
Once the Senate receives the impeachment charge, it must immediately take up the issue, as articles of impeachment carry the highest privilege. Under rules in place for decades, impeachment is the only issue the Senate can consider while a trial is underway; it cannot simultaneously consider other legislative business.
But Biden has asked McConnell whether it would be possible to alter that rule, allowing the Senate to conduct Trump's impeachment trial on a parallel track to consideration of his Cabinet nominees, splitting its days between the two. McConnell told Biden he would consult with the Senate parliamentarian on whether that would be possible.
If such a bifurcated process were not possible, House Democrats might choose to hold back the article to allow Biden time to win confirmation of his team before a trial got underway.
The Senate could hold a trial for Trump even after he has left office, though there is no precedent for it. Only two presidents other than Trump have been impeached — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — and both were ultimately acquitted and completed their terms in office.
Written by: Catie Edmondson
Photographs by: Doug Mills and Erin Schaff
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