Donald Trump impeachment: What happens next?

On Thursday, Donald Trump became the first President in US history to be impeached twice, after being accused of stoking the insurrection at the US Capitol last week. 

The speedy move took just three days, but with the same amount of time left before Trump's inglorious term comes to an end, is there time to hold a trial, let alone convict him? 

Here's what lies ahead for the former real estate mogul, and how it might play out. 

What would normally happen

After a President is impeached by the House of Representatives, a trial is held in the Senate to determine his guilt. A purely political affair, votes have in the past largely fallen along partisan lines. A two-thirds majority is needed to convict, so to date no US President has ever been removed from office via impeachment. 

The three previous impeachment trials have taken place weeks, if not months, after the impeachment. There were 49 days between Trump's impeachment and his acquittal earlier this year; 55 days between Bill Clinton's impeachment and acquittal, and 84 days between Andrew Johnson's. 

What's likely to happen this time around

With just a week left in Trump's term, it's extremely unlikely he'll be removed from office before Joe Biden's scheduled inauguration on January 20 (US time). 

The Senate isn't scheduled to meet again until January 19. On that date the Senate Majority Leader will still be Republican Mitch McConnell, who on Thursday said there was "simply no chance that a fair or serious trial" could be conducted in time for Trump's removal before Biden's inauguration. 

Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.
Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Photo credit: Getty

On January 20 the Senate Majority Leader role will switch to Democrat Chuck Schumer, who says there will be a trial - even if Trump is no longer President. 

McConnell has ruled out invoking emergency measures to bring the Senate back together earlier than January 19. 

A supermajority of Senators could change the rules to speed up the process, Frank Bowman - a law professor at the University of Missouri - told the Tampa Bay Times, if they were "determined" to get rid of him.

A two-thirds majority in the Senate is also incredibly unlikely. When Mitt Romney voted to remove Trump in the first impeachment trial, he was the first US Senator in history to do so against a member of his own party. The Senate will be balanced 50-50 on January 20, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.  

How is a post-presidency impeachment possible? 

While an impeachment trial has never been carried out for a President who has already left office, it has happened to officials in lesser roles. Secretary of War William W Belknap was tried in April 1876, two months after he resigned in disgrace; and as the US Constitution was being drafted, a late impeachment trial was being carried out in England against the former Governor-General of Bengal, William Hastings

There is nothing in US law which rules out a late impeachment. 

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. Photo credit: Reuters

But why? He's already gone

There are numerous reasons why US lawmakers might want to convict Trump, even if the primary goal - to remove him from office - has, in a way, already been achieved.

The most obvious is that it would send a message to future Presidents considering "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors", no matter how far through their term they are. 

"There needs to be some official response, even if it's in a symbolic way - not just for what happened on January 6, but essentially for the prolonged effort by the President to overturn a valid election," John Dean, counsel for President Richard Nixon, told PolitiFact.

Another reason would be for Republicans to rid themselves of the stain of being associated with the only US President in history to be impeached twice. 

"McConnell has indicated that he believes that impeaching President Donald Trump will make it easier to get rid of the President and Trumpism from the Republican Party, according to a source with knowledge of the matter," CNN reported earlier this week

A third reason for doing it would be to stop Trump from ever holding office again. 

"A President who combines impeachable conduct with aspirations of returning to government presents a special future danger," Bowman and Michigan State University legal scholar Brian Kalt wrote in the Washington Post

"Given Trump's expressed interest in running for president in 2024, this factor seems to apply here. The current impeachment effort against Trump has been spurred by the fatal attack on the Capitol by his supporters in an attempt to prevent the certification of his election defeat. 

"That means Congress has especially poignant and traumatic reasons for considering whether Trump’s return to public life might pose such a danger."

Once convicted, a former President isn't automatically blocked from running again - that requires a second vote, which only requires a simple majority and would pass easily, with the Democrats holding a 51-50 majority, with Harris' vote. 

A fourth reason for conviction would be punitive - Trump would lose his presidential pension, money for staff and offices, travel expenses, and medical insurance. He would still be eligible for Secret Service protection. 

Does it matter when it happens?

It depends on how Trump plans to spend his final week in office. There are fears he could pardon a range of associates who probably don't deserve it, or even himself - whether he can or not is unclear.

Even if he did, it wouldn't stop charges being laid by state-level officials - while no former President has ever been charged with a crime (not even Richard Nixon, who definitely did crimes but resigned before he could be impeached), criminal investigations into his business dealings are expected to take place. 

Trump is on the record saying he wouldn't pardon himself because he has "done nothing wrong". 

Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi pushed for a speedy impeachment and trial last week, fearing Trump might do something really stupid with the United States' formidable nuclear arsenal

Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton. Photo credit: Getty

What happened to the other Presidents who were impeached?

To date, only three US Presidents have been impeached. Trump accounts for half of all the impeachments.

The first was Andrew Johnson, who removed a Secretary of War without the Senate's approval. He came very close to conviction - the votes on each article going 35-19, just one vote short of a two-thirds majority. Johnson failed to win his own party's nomination for the next presidential vote, and is now generally considered one of the worst Presidents in US history. 

The second would have been Nixon, but he resigned before a vote could be taken, so instead that honour went to Clinton. The 42nd President was facing charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice, after claiming he hadn't had sexual relations with a White House intern - which he did. He was acquitted on both charges, Democrats being joined by a handful of Republicans in voting not guilty.