On January 13th of this year, President Donald Trump was impeached for the second time, becoming the first twice-impeached president. The House impeached Trump with a single article: “Incitement of Insurrection.”
House Democrats pushed forward with their plan to remove Trump with only days left in his presidency, approving a resolution urging Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove Trump with a Cabinet vote. The resolution passed by a 223–205 vote.
Democrats proceeded with their resolution even though Pence, who, after meeting with the President for the first time since the mob attack, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi informing her of his decision not to invoke the 25th Amendment.
On its face, Pence’s failure to push for the 25 Amendment gave the appearance that he buckled to pressure from Trump. Cable news analysts were at a loss to explain Pense’s continued subservience to Trump.
Pence had plenty of reasons to want Trump gone sooner rather than later. After all, Trump is responsible for whipping up the insurgent mob that breached the Capitol, putting Pence and his family in mortal danger in the process.
So why didn’t Pence seize upon the opportunity to push Trump out of office? The reason could be that our assumptions about the meeting are wrong. What if Pence’s rejection of the 25th Amendment may be part of a broader Republican strategy?
With Trump’s presidency coming to a close and a second Trump impeachment trial on the horizon, it’s worth reviewing the sequence of Republican actions since the January 6th attack.
Under the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Vice President and a majority of Cabinet members can declare the President unfit to carry out his office's duties and transfer presidential responsibilities to the Vice President.
Section 4 of the amendment allows for the vice president to assume the president’s duties if the vice president and the majority of the cabinet determine that the president “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Up until now, that section of the amendment has never been invoked.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Pence, because of his Presidential aspirations, does not want to anger the Republican (read: Trump) base. But perhaps there is another reason he did not push Trump out.
While enacting the 25th Amendment would mean immediate removal, it does not prohibit him from a 2024 presidential run.
“When you come for the king, you best not miss.”
The one thing we know about Mitch McConnell is that he plays the long game. Nothing he does is accidental — every move he makes is with a view down the road.
Although his status as majority leader is over, don’t underestimate McConnell’s influence on the Senate’s Republican conference. Also, there is no love lost between Trump and the Senate Republican Conference, so they will be more than happy to see him go for good.
By any measure, McConnell has played Trump like a fiddle. They got tax cuts, dozens of conservative court judges, and three seats on the Supreme Court. There’s nothing more Trump can do for them.
The upcoming impeachment trial is different this time. Unlike the Ukraine scandal, this trial comes just days after Trump instigated an attack on a co-equal branch of government — on live television.
Despite inciting an insurgent attack that nearly became a mass casualty event, Trump is still immensely popular among Republicans. That said, he leaves office with a job approval rating of just 34%, the lowest of his presidency.
Even worse for Trump, 68% of the public does not want him to remain a significant political figure in the future, according to Pew. Still, Trump has hinted at a 2024 run on numerous occasions, so he can make things difficult for Pence or other GOP presidential hopefuls.
The combination of a historically low approval rating and the looming threat of a Trump 2024 candidacy may be all the ammunition McConnell needs to convince Senate Republicans to cut Trump loose.
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The recent moves by Republican leadership seem coordinated. They could signal a coordinated strategy to keep Trump out of presidential politics, starting with Pence’s decision to take the 25th Amendment off the table.
Before Pence’s decision, Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (who is also McConnell’s wife) announced their resignations from Trump’s cabinet, hampering the ability to invoke the 25th Amendment.
Around the same time, Liz Cheney, who is ranked third in House Republican leadership, announced she would vote to impeach in a scathing statement:
“Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution. I will vote to impeach the President.”
Finally, McConnell took the unusual step of leaking to the press that he was “pleased” with Trump’s imminent impeachment. In a letter to Senate colleagues, he said he hasn’t ruled out voting to convict Trump in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial.
Unlike the first impeachment trial earlier this year, Trump is a much weaker president. This time, more House members of the president’s party voted for impeachment and at any other time in history.
The 14th Amendment
If McConnell’s goal is to remove Trump as a future political threat, he cannot accomplish that with an impeachment conviction alone. According to the Constitution, there are two ways to punish an impeached official — removal from office or ‘disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.’
January 13th of this year, President Donald Trump was impeached for the second time, becoming the first twice-impeached president. The House impeached Trump with a single article: “Incitement of Insurrection.”
The Constitution requires a two-thirds Senate majority for removal; the precedent for disqualification only requires a simple majority. Congressional precedent requires only a simple majority for disqualification. But historically, that vote only happens after a conviction.
Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, however, provides an alternative mechanism for disqualification. Enacted following the Civil War to prevent Confederates from holding public office, the 14 Amendment states that no person shall hold office if they have engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the United States.
If McConnell and Republicans want to disqualify from future office Trump under the 14th Amendment, they have two things in their favor. The more time that passes, the more the evidence points to Trump’s culpability for the Capitol attack. And since the impeachment trial begins after the Biden-Harris inauguration, Democrats will hold the majority in the Senate.
With Trump’s removal now a moot point, McConnell can stand down, allowing Democrats to use the 14th Amendment to disqualify Trump from holding federal office again. The Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald explains:
“[T]he 14th Amendment…could, however, be used to prevent Trump or other politicians who supported the attempted insurrection from holding office again. If Trump is impeached by the House, two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote to convict him in a trial that would be held after he leaves office. Using Section 3 of the 14th Amendment wouldn’t require a super-majority, historians noted, and wouldn’t complicate the start of Joe Biden’s presidency.”
So here’s the question: do Republicans in the Senate believe Trump will fade quietly into the night? That prospect seems highly unlikely. Based on experience, no one can expect Trump to be a normal ex-president.
In the final analysis, McConnell and Republicans may determine now is the time to remove Trump as a future threat to the Republican Party. And they may be willing to let Democrats help them accomplish it.
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