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Yes, there is a precedent to try former government officials. It was established 145 years ago.

Republican Party members have cautioned against impeaching former President Donald Trump, claiming it would be "unconstitutional."

Yes, there is a precedent to try former government officials. It was established 145 years ago.
Image Source: President Trump Departs For Florida At The End Of His Presidency. JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MARYLAND - JANUARY 20. (Photo by Pete Marovich - Pool/Getty Images)

As the Senate trial of former United States President Donald Trump moves forward, many have questioned whether it is, firstly, necessary, and secondly, constitutional. Notable Republican Party members have criticized the decision to move forward with the impeachment trial for the latter reason, particularly because he is now officially a former government employee and a private citizen. However, there is a precedent in US history that lays down the precedent to take a former US government employee to trial. The Senate voted on this very subject in question in the year 1876. They concluded, at the time, that taking up an impeachment trial after someone leaves office was indeed within the Senate's jurisdiction, NPR reports.


Republican Senator Josh Hawley is one of the voices standing firmly against the impending impeachment trial. He, too, was criticized for his role in the January 6 violence that took place on Capitol Hill. He stated, "I think the ex-President's rhetoric on the day was inflammatory. I think it was irresponsible. I think it was wrong. But I think that this impeachment effort is, I mean, I think it's blatantly unconstitutional. It's a really, really, really dangerous precedent." It is not, in fact, blatantly unconstitutional. On the contrary, the precedent for the opposite is very much true.



There is no doubt that these events are rare; prior to Trump, only two Presidents had ever been impeached—none had been impeached twice. Trump will also potentially be the first President to have been impeached after leaving office, which is made possible through a precedent laid 145 years ago. With regard to the Constitution, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) legal briefing on January 15 notes, "Though the text [of the Constitution] is open to debate, it appears that most scholars who have closely examined the question have concluded that Congress has authority to extend the impeachment process to officials who are no longer in office." Anyone who is impeached will face two consequences. The first, being removed from office, and the second, being barred from holding public office ever again.



Given that, CRS confirms there is more than enough leeway to impeach a former President. In addition to this, precedent is set through the 1876 Senate impeachment trial of William Belknap, war secretary under President Ulysses S. Grant. He was tried for appropriating public funds for private purposes—after he resigned from office. The Senate Historian's office records, "Belknap raced to the White House, handed Grant his resignation, and burst into tears." Nonetheless, that did not work. He was impeached by the House the very next day. When the trial moved to the Senate, Belknap's lawyer argued that he was no a private citizen and could therefore not be tried.


That did not work either. Following three days of arguments and two weeks of secret deliberations, the Senate voted 37-29 that Belknap was "amenable to trial by impeachment for acts done as Secretary of War, notwithstanding his resignation of said office before he was impeached." A majority voted to convict in the end, but they were short of the necessary two-thirds. Although Belknap was acquitted, the 1876 Congress moved to trial precisely because they wanted to set the precedent: "It has been settled thereby that persons who have held civil office in the United States are impeachable, and that the Senate has jurisdiction to try them. [The effort was] worth infinitely more than all the time, labor, and expense of the protracted trial closed by the verdict of yesterday." As we hear some of the same arguments being peddled by Trump supporters today, it is equally worthwhile to learn from our past mistakes so we may never be doomed to repeat them.


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