Can You Impeach a President After Their Term Is Over?
While the U.S. Constitution doesn't directly address the issue, historians believe there is precedent to do so.
On January 13, 2021, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection against the government, it marked the first time in the country’s history that a president has been impeached twice. But the unusual circumstances don’t end there.
Following the vote to impeach a president, the U.S. Senate holds a trial to determine whether or not to convict the president of the crime(s) identified by the House. This time, the Senate had been in recess since the impeachment vote on the 13th, only returning to the chambers on January 19—the day before the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The unprecedented timing of the impeachment process has raised many questions, including whether it’s possible to impeach a president after their term is over. Reader’s Digest turned to Peter J. Smith, a professor at The George Washington University who specializes in constitutional law and civil procedure for answers. For more on the topic, learn about things people get wrong about impeachment.
What is impeachment?
Before getting into the specifics of whether an impeachment can take place after a president leaves office, let’s quickly review what’s involved with the impeachment process itself. First of all, “impeachment” does not mean “immediate removal from office.” Rather, impeachment is the process through which the House of Representatives identifies and investigates certain alleged crimes committed by the president that could potentially disqualify them from remaining in office.
It concludes with the House voting on “articles of impeachment”—or specific charges made against the president, which are then brought to trial in front of the Senate. Following the trial, the Senate votes on whether to convict the president of the offense(s)—something that requires at least two-thirds of the members of the Senate (67 in total) voting in favor of conviction, and, in turn, removal from office.
In addition to the president and vice president, Supreme Court justices, federal judges, Senators and members of Congress, as well as cabinet secretaries may also be impeached.
What does the Constitution say about impeachment?
While the United States Constitution does provide broad guidelines, it often lacks details when it comes to the specifics of how some practices are implemented. This is the case when it comes to impeachment, Smith tells Reader’s Digest. Aside from saying that the House of Representatives has the sole power of impeachment and the Senate has the sole power to try impeachment charges, along with stipulating what constitutes an impeachable offense and the potential consequences of a conviction, the Constitution keeps it pretty vague when it comes to the impeachment process.
“There are lots of situations like this where the Constitution speaks in vague terms, and then we have to sort it out later,” Smith explains. “Sometimes in sorting it out, we draw inferences from what we think the point of the provision is. Or sometimes we look to historical understandings [of an issue] or what certain language would have meant at the time [the provision was written]. And sometimes we look at precedent, which in this case refers to what Congress has done in [in this situation] in the past.”
Can a president be impeached after their term is over?
Before getting into the historical precedent, this is a good time for a reminder that impeachment is separate from removal from office. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on January 13, so that part is already done, and the question of whether a president can be impeached after their term is over doesn’t apply here. Having said that, Smith points to the case of Senator William Blout, who, in 1797, was technically impeached after he had left office—though being a member of Congress instead of the president, the circumstances were different. In the mood for some presidential trivia? Here are 52 astonishing facts you never knew about U.S. presidents.
Can a Senate impeachment trial take place after a president’s term is over?
This is another situation where the Constitution doesn’t answer the question directly, nor has there been historical precedent for this happening to a president before. It did happen once before, though: in 1876 to then-Secretary of War William Belknap, Smith explains. Belknap ended up resigning from office moments before the House voted to impeach him. Although he was no longer in the cabinet, the House did vote to impeach Belknap, and the Senate held a trial, but fell short of the two-thirds necessary to convict him. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of doubt that a trial could take place [after someone left office],” Smith notes.
According to Smith, the reasoning behind holding a Senate impeachment trial after someone is no longer in office in 1876—and still applicable today—is that the Constitution provides two possible consequences for someone who is convicted, following impeachment. The first is removal from office, which, at that stage, would be moot because the person no longer would hold office. The second is to disqualify the person from holding future office.
“That’s still a live question,” says Smith. Trump left office at noon on January 20, so there’s no longer a need to remove him from office. “But there might still be a strong argument to disqualify him from running for office or holding some other office again,” he says.
If a president is convicted in the Senate trial, does that mean they’re prevented from ever holding public office again?
Not necessarily. When the Senate votes to convict a president, they aren’t automatically banned from running for or holding public office in the future; in fact, the issue isn’t addressed in the Constitution. The Senate asserts they may hold a separate vote on the matter, Smith explains. And while a two-thirds vote is required to convict an individual who has been impeached, the power to bar someone from holding public office in the future is determined by a simple majority vote (at least 51 senators). You may be shocked by the U.S. Constitution myths most Americans believe.
- Peter J. Smith, a professor at The George Washington University