What happens when a presidential impeachment inquiry runs into a presidential election year? The United States in uncharted territory.
The Iowa caucus, the first vote that will be cast for president in 2020, is three months away. President Trump is running for reelection — unlike the last two presidents who faced impeachment, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, who were both in their second terms. Never before has the United States had a president who was in a position to be reelected after impeachment — let alone convicted and removed from office, should that happen. But even in the hypothetical worst-case scenario, President Trump could still be reelected.
The House of Representatives is beginning the public phase of its impeachment inquiry with the release of transcripts of previously secret testimony and then public hearings Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If the House votes articles of impeachment, there will be a trial in the Senate.
Three other presidents have faced formal impeachment inquiries: Nixon, Clinton and Andrew Johnson. But none was convicted and removed from office. Johnson, who became president after the death of Abraham Lincoln, wasn’t nominated for another term. Richard Nixon resigned in his second term before the House of Representatives held an impeachment vote. Clinton survived his Senate trial and served out his second term in office.
So would it be possible for Trump to be removed from office through the impeachment process, only to be reelected to the White House for a second term?
“In theory it would be,” says Frank O. Bowman III, a constitutional law expert and professor at the University of Missouri and author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.” Bowman says, “The American constitution provides for only two remedies or punishments if someone is impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. And those are removal from whatever office the defendant holds and also potential disqualification from ever again holding what the Constitution calls an office of honor or profit. Essentially any other federal office.”
But there’s a little-known constitutional rule that would allow Trump to be reelected and essentially hold office again if he were impeached, convicted and removed from office.
“If the president were convicted, but either the Senate decided not to hold a disqualification vote, or the disqualification vote failed, in theory the president could run again,” says Bowman.
The specific section of the Constitution Bowman is referring to is Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, which states: “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”
Technically, the Constitution does not mandate that the Senate hold a second vote to disqualify an elected official from holding future office. Rather, it’s up to the Senate to decide if there’s a vote at all. If there is, it would require a majority vote, rather than the two-thirds required to convict on articles of impeachment.
One official who notably benefited from the Senate’s decision not to hold a disqualification was federal Judge Alcee Hastings. In 1989, he was impeached and convicted by the Senate for accepting a bribe. But the Senate decided not to hold the additional disqualification vote.
“As a result of which, ex-Judge Hastings went back down to Florida, where he’s from, and a couple years later ran for Congress and won,” says Bowman. Hastings was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 and has served in Congress ever since because that disqualification vote was never taken. Bowman says, “So in theory that could happen with the president as well, and so a president who was convicted could run again and could in theory be elected and serve.”