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All but five Senate Republicans on Tuesday favored the easy way out of an impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. Forty-five senators, all Republicans, voted to dismiss the proceedings as unconstitutional, which would have ended their consideration of the ugly problem of Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Tuesday’s 55-45 vote to proceed likely means that the Senate will fail to convict the president of inciting the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol; a two-thirds vote is needed for conviction. But that is not a reason for the Senate to shirk its responsibility of judging the president’s role in this month’s attempted insurrection.
On Jan. 6, Trump repeated lies claiming “our election victory [was] stolen” and urged supporters at a rally outside the White House to go to the Capitol and to “fight like hell” to overturn the Electoral College results, which were to be certified by Congress that day.
The House has already impeached Trump, for a historic second time, for his role in inciting the siege of the Capitol. That move, importantly, came while Trump was still president.
As Collins noted, if Trump faces no possibility of penalties from the Senate for his role in inciting the Capitol violence, it would set a dangerous precedent that a president can engage in wrongdoing in their final days in office with little fear of consequences.
That is an outcome that should worry us all, regardless of our political affiliation.
“Today the Senate is asked to decide whether the impeachment trial of Donald Trump shall begin at all,” Collins said in a statement following Tuesday’s vote on an objection to proceed with the impeachment trial. “While the Constitution does not explicitly express the Congress’s jurisdiction when the subject of impeachment is a former president — or any former officer — its text and purpose, as well as Senate precedent, support the conclusion that the trial should proceed.”
This conclusion, she noted, is backed by more than 150 constitutional scholars, from across the ideological spectrum, including the conservative Federalist Society.
“The Constitution provides two possible penalties for conviction. The first is removal, a consequence that flows directly from conviction by the Senate. The second penalty — which requires a separate consideration after conviction — is disqualification from holding office again,” Collins continued. “If the Senate were unable to consider disqualification after a president’s term had expired, the second penalty could lose its meaning.
“If we dismiss this action based on a lack of jurisdiction, we would create a precedent under which a future president could avoid disqualification simply by waiting for the closing days of his term to engage in misconduct,” she added.
This is the most important point if we are to remain a nation of laws.
To suggest, as some Senate Republicans did Tuesday, that this somehow opens the door to the impeachment of former presidents who long ago left office is just silly and shows the hollowness of the arguments being made. Trump was impeached just two weeks ago, during the current Congress. Many of these Republicans are grasping at procedural and rhetorical straws, seemingly to avoid having to weigh in on the substance of the charges and evidence against Trump.
Collins, along with Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, is also floating a resolution to censure Trump, according to Axios. If it were successful, it would be the first time a president had been censured, although the move carries no penalty, such as a prohibition of holding office in the future. Such a resolution requires 60 votes, but it does not face constitutional questions.
Both face long odds in the Senate but both are important means for holding a president accountable for his misconduct.