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Impeach Trump! What are the benefits and costs?

By Rob Cover - posted Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Are there benefits and pitfalls in removing United States President Donald Trump in the final few days of his term in office?

Subsequent to his 6 January rally that ended in a mob storming Congress, Democrat leaders-including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer-have called upon the Vice President and Cabinet to enact the 25th Amendment to remove Mr Trump or they will consider a second impeachment. A substantial number of parties, including United States and global news outlets, comedians, lobby groups, international editors and ambassadors, have likewise called for Trump's immediate removal from office. Several of Trump's own staff, including a cabinet member, have resigned. A number of sources have suggested Trump's incitement of violence at the exact moment of Congress' formalisation of the election results alongside his disproven claims of electoral fraud is akin to an attempted coup.

In many ways, preventing Trump from completing his term is prudent - his increasingly unsteadying rhetoric, use of disinformation, refusal to concede his election loss (until the aftermath of a riot he caused over those results), promotion of false conspiracy theories and endorsement of sedition and distrust in recognised constitutional processes are creating a destabilising effect on the ordinary democratic and governmental processes at the important time of an administrative transition amidst a catastrophic pandemic.


Removal by the 25th Amendment is unlikely and perhaps undesirable. Although seen as the quickest method for removing an untenable president, the provisions of Section 4 of the amendment have never previously been invoked. They allow for the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet todeclare the president "unable to discharge the powers and duties" of their office. The amendment allows the president to rebut the claim, requiring the Vice President to enact a second Cabinet vote-we can imagine a daily back-and-forth clouded by media commentary, law suits and Trumpian disinformation that confuses the public and results in further violence.

Removal by impeachment is more complex but more clear. Impeachment can only occur in the House of Representatives. Once impeached, a president can only be convicted by a two-third Senate majority, and the judgment can only extend as far as removal from office(although this does not prevent a court from trying an impeached and convicted president for a crime). Three presidents have previously been impeached (Andrew Johnson in 1868; Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2019). From a social perspective, impeachment has the added benefit of involving a judgment conducted by elected representatives of the people as opposed to the appointed colleagues of the president.

A second impeachment of Trump would send a clear message that the representatives of the people do condemn the incitement to violence and use of disinformation by a sitting president. More importantly, an impeachment that ends in a Senate conviction - the first president to be removed from office - will help re-establish limits for the future of democracy.

There are three good, further reasons for impeaching the president (and voting to remove him from office) beyond the needs of the immediate next fourteen days. There are also three potential negatives that need to be navigated if impeachment is to be a remedy to America's damaged democracy.

1. A reckoning and punishment

Punishment for anti-constitutional acts is not new (protesters, rioters, and anti-establishment figures are regularly charged with crimes in all parts of the world, including the United States of America). However, a figure who is in a position of substantial influence who encourages the violent disregard for constitutional processes is doing something a little worse. Among everyday writers in the past twenty-four hours, punishing Trump for inciting violence has become a theme.


From an ethical perspective, punishing a President for openly inciting sedition and rioting-regardless of any subsequent, staid condemnation of violence and claims he supports democratic processes-involves what is sometimes called a 'Power Transfer' approach. It takes into account that the unfettered power of a public figure, a president, a celebrity, or a wealthy businessman, is greater than the capacity of ordinary people to make a difference or have a counter-argument recognised. It accounts for the fact that there they have a capacity to influence others . Punishing the mis-use of that influence is a necessary remedy to prevent further mis-use by future presidents. In that sense, the punishment aspect is educational.

2. Curtailing Trump's future ambitions

It is widely recognised that Trump will not simply disappear on 20 January. There are rumours he plans to start his own digital or TV network to further spread his brand of disinformation and chaos while maintaining a base of populist believers; likewise it is assumed he will try to win the primaries for a 2024 tilt at the White House. It is thought members of his family will attempt to enter politics-a familiar pattern among right-wing leaders, for example, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in France and the Porter and Downer families in Australia, among many others.

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About the Author

Rob Cover is Professor of Digital Communication at RMIT University, Melbourne where he researches contemporary media cultures. The author of six books, his most recent are Flirting in the era of #MeToo: Negotiating Intimacy (with Alison Bartlett and Kyra Clarke) and Population, Mobility and Belonging.

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