That’s not really something to celebrate, but that’s the short summary as Trump’s second trial ends in an acquittal. The question of whether or not it was even constitutional to try him after he has left office is only addressed in a handful of statements within the Constitution:
If it’s constitutional, say this: Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law. (Article 1, Section 3)
If it’s unconstitutional , say this: The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. (Article 2, Section 4)
There are some who are concerned that impeaching a private citizen would set a dangerous precedent, but it would seem to me that allowing an individual who was elected or appointed to office to escape judgement by leaving office is supremely more dangerous. Why? Pardons are not permitted in the case of impeachment, but they are, of course, allowed for federal crimes. Those intending to subvert the will and purpose of the Constitution need only to resign to ensure no legislative punishment and, even more insidiously, receive a pardon from the executive branch for offenses committed and get off scot-free (see Richard Nixon).
I find it hard to imagine that the framers intended this to be possible, but those defending the trial as unconstitutional, are leading the country right down that path. Obviously, I am not an expert on constitutional matters, so I nerded out and looked up the last relevant example of the impeachment of an individual no longer in office: William Belknap, former Secretary of War, who had been impeached by the House after he had resigned.
Many of the arguments I read (and I didn’t read all 1,166 pages…I’m not that much of a nerd) would be convincing even today. Here’s how the house managers and lawyers of 1876 answered the questions asked in 2021:
If Trump is no longer President, is this trial unconstitutional?
We claim that the limitation of the Constitution is not as to time, it simply relates to a class of persons and the word ‘officer’ is used as descriptive…an officer in one sense never loses his office. He gets his title and he wears it forever and an officer is under this liability for life; if he once takes office under the United States, if while in office and as an officer he commits acts which demand impeachment, he may be impeached. (excerpted)
Can a private citizen be impeached?
It is obvious that the only persons liable to impeachment are those who are or have been in public office. All executive and judicial officers from the President downward, from the judges of the Supreme Court to those of the most inferior tribunals, are included in this description.
The Constitution requires removal from office upon conviction. If the Senate cannot remove him (since his term expired), how is this trial not a sham?
It is argued if the court cannot inflict the whole punishment prescribed by law, it has no jurisdiction and cannot inflict any portion of it. Such a statement in the ordinary courts of justice would meet with little favor. In larceny, the judgment usually prescribed is that the goods be returned with fine and imprisonment. If the criminal was likely to be prosecuted, he could go back and restore the goods, and, if this principle should hold, plead that the whole sentence which he had the lawful right to receive could not be inflicted and therefore he would not submit to any trial or punishment.
Like Trump, a majority of Senators present voted for Belknap’s conviction, and also like Trump, he was acquitted.