As House Democrats on Friday discussed whether to impeach President Donald Trump for a second time, President-elect Joe Biden said “the quickest way” to remove Trump from office is through the Jan. 20 inauguration at which Biden will be sworn in.
“What happens before or after that is a judgment for the Congress to make,” Biden said at a Delaware news conference, declining to take a position on impeachment.
The president-elect’s remarks came as House Democrats were nearing the end of a three-and-a-half hour caucus call to debate their options. Ahead of the call, more than half of the caucus had signaled their support for impeachment, but the call ended with no final decisions.
In a statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterized the call as a "sad, moving and patriotic" conversation, and said the deliberations would continue.
“It is the hope of Members that the President will immediately resign," the California Democrat said. "But if he does not, I have instructed the Rules Committee to be prepared to move forward with Congressman Jamie Raskin’s 25th Amendment legislation and a motion for impeachment."
Pelosi emphasized that "the House will preserve every option," which includes potentially bringing a privileged impeachment resolution up for a vote. Her rhetoric Friday showed less urgency than the remarks she made to reporters Thursday, saying that while Trump has limited time left in office, "any day can be a horror show for America."
Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Ted Lieu of California and Jamie Raskin of Maryland have drafted a resolution that leadership could use that charges Trump with “incitement of insurrection.” Cicilline said on CNN Friday that they plan to introduce it during the House's pro forma session on Monday.
Raskin's 25th Amendment legislation Pelosi referenced does not — at least as he introduced it last fall — provide a quick remedy to remove Trump. The measure would establish a 17-member commission that would be able to assess the president's fitness for office, but only if called upon through House and Senate approval of a concurrent resolution.
Although Trump has only 12 days left in office, Democrats, infuriated by the president’s supporters raiding the Capitol on Wednesday, say the president is “dangerous” and should not be allowed to finish his term or hold elected office again. Biden agreed with the sentiment that Trump shouldn’t serve another day, but he did not endorse any specific efforts that would remove the president before his term ends.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, have said Trump incited his supporters to violence with his rhetoric about overturning the election results and suggesting they could persuade Congress to prevent certification of the Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden during Wednesday’s joint session.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong,” Trump told supporters outside the White House on Wednesday.
Hours later, a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol and broke into the building looking for lawmakers, destroying property, firing chemical irritants and wielding weapons. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick died of injuries suffered while defending the Capitol.
Impeachment isn’t Democrats’ first choice. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer appealed to Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and work with the cabinet to remove Trump, but Pence has yet to provide them with a response. Business Insider, followed by other outlets, reported Thursday night that Pence opposed invoking the 25th Amendment.
Ahead of Friday’s caucus call, Pelosi sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to Democrats saying she and Schumer still hoped to get a positive response from Pence. The California Democrat also provided another option for removing Trump, saying Republicans should follow the example their party set with former President Richard Nixon and urge Trump to resign.
“If the President does not leave office imminently and willingly, the Congress will proceed with our action,” Pelosi said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy put out a statement Friday in opposition to impeachment, saying the two parties should instead work together to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power to the Biden administration.
“Impeaching the President with just 12 days left in his term will only divide our country more,” the California Republican said. “I have reached out to President-elect Biden today and plan to speak to him about how we must work together to lower the temperature and unite the country to solve America’s challenges.”
In her letter to the caucus, Pelosi also noted that she spoke Friday morning to Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about “precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”
‘Incitement of insurrection’
If the House does consider impeachment again, the “privileged” resolution option would allow it to go straight to the floor without hearings or a markup.
The resolution from Cicilline, Raskin and Lieu — who all serve on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over impeachment — contains just one article charging Trump with “incitement of insurrection.” It cites Trump’s speech Wednesday in which he made false claims that he won the election and “willfully made statements that encouraged — and foreseeably resulted in — imminent lawless action at the Capitol.”
The resolution says Trump’s behavior on Wednesday was consistent with his ongoing behavior of trying to overturn the presidential election results, including his Jan. 2 call asking Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help him find enough votes to put him ahead of Biden.
“In all of this, President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of government,” the measure reads. “He threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coordinate branch of government. He thereby betrayed his trust as President, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.”
Cicilline said on Twitter on Thursday evening that within 12 hours of the group circulating the impeachment resolution, more than 110 Democrats had signed on as co-sponsors. That’s roughly half of the 222-member Democratic Caucus.
Democrats from across the political spectrum — including progressives like Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, as well as moderates like Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Cindy Axne of Iowa — have called for Trump’s removal and signaled support for impeachment since the 25th Amendment is unlikely to be invoked.
“The only Constitutional option left to protect our nation is for the United States Congress to approve articles of impeachment,” Axne said in a statement Friday. “I do not make this decision lightly, but President Trump has the blood of five Americans — including one Capitol Police officer — on his hands.”
Senate trial uncertain
If House Democrats decide to consider a new charge against Trump, they will likely have the votes to impeach even without GOP support. But they’re hoping some Republicans will get on board, especially since the resolution would bar Trump from holding office in the future, which could free the GOP from some of his grip over the party.
No House Republicans have yet to come out in favor of impeachment, but Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger had called for Trump’s removal through the 25th Amendment and Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers said he’d support it if that’s what Pence and the Cabinet decided to do.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to say how he would respond if the House sent over articles of impeachment, but unless he pushes for a quick trial, there’s unlikely to be one before Trump leaves office Jan. 20 and Biden is sworn in.
Senate rules require that once articles are received, an impeachment trial take precedent over any other pending business. But the Senate had reached agreement before it adjourned early Thursday morning not to conduct business until noon on Jan. 19, making that the earliest any impeachment articles could reach the Senate floor for consideration.
The only way for the Senate to act sooner would be for both parties to reach a deal to override the previous agreement.
Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, a member of GOP leadership and chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, dismissed the idea of the Senate moving forward with a Trump impeachment trial.
“I think it’s a ridiculous discussion to have,” the Missouri Republican told Nexstar, which operates local affiliates across the state. “I’ve got enough decisions to make about things that can happen, rather than to spend time on things that can’t happen.”
Blunt said Pelosi and Schumer both know Trump won’t be removed from office by the Congress.
“You don’t have time for it to happen, even if there was a reason,” he said. “I’m sure that President Trump would have never wanted anything like that to happen, but when you start inviting people to Washington to march on the Capitol, you’d better know that there are potential consequences of that, that you would never be for.”
One Senate Republican, however, said he’d welcome a trial.
“The House, if they come together and have a process, I will definitely consider whatever articles they might move,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said on CBS on Friday. “The president has disregarded his oath of office. ... What he did was wicked.”
Conviction after Trump leaves
One lingering question is whether a Senate trial to convict Trump could occur after he’s left office. The Constitution provides no timing limitations, and legal experts have offered different opinions about how it should be interpreted since a president has never been impeached and tried after leaving office.
One of the arguments against a post-presidency impeachment is that the Constitution does not make private citizens subject to impeachment. But there is precedent.
“It appears that federal officials who have resigned have nonetheless been thought to be susceptible to impeachment and a ban on holding future office,” a 2015 CRS report says, citing Secretary of War William W. Belknap’s impeachment in 1876.
“Belknap resigned two hours before the House impeached him, but the Senate nevertheless conducted a trial in which Belknap was acquitted,” the report said. “However, during the trial, upon objection by Belknap’s counsel that the Senate lacked jurisdiction because Belknap was now a private citizen, the Senate voted in favor of jurisdiction.”
Michael J. Gerhardt, who was a witness during the House’s 2019 impeachment hearings, argued the case for impeachment proceedings being allowed to proceed once a president has left office.
“It certainly makes no sense for presidents who commit misconduct late in their terms, or perhaps not discovered until late in their terms, to be immune from the one process the Constitution allows for barring them from serving in any other federal office or from receiving any federal pensions,” he said Friday in a post on Just Security, an online forum for analysis of U.S. national security policy hosted by New York University School of Law.
“Understandably, members of Congress and the American people might lose the appetite for subjecting a president to impeachment once he has left office for good,” Gerhardt added. “But that is a political choice not a constitutional directive. A president who leaves office and retains the potential to return someday should still be subject as well to the unique processes set forth in the Constitution to sanction his abuse of his office.”
Niels Lesniewski, Daniel Peake and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.
Correction: The photo caption on this report was corrected to reflect that House Democrats had not yet decided whether to bring up impeachment articles in the coming days.