Up until now the only precedent for impeaching former officials was the Belknap case involving President Grant’s Secretary of War who had resigned in an attempt to avert impeachment, only for the Senate to vote that former officials could be impeached him. Belknap was however acquitted because enough senators voted against on the grounds that the Senate did not have jurisdiction.
And that was back in the 1870s.
In its desperation to get President Trump, Democrats and some Republicans, including Mitt Romney, decided to create a much more binding precedent that will make it possible to try former presidents. And it’s unlikely that Senate Republicans will even have the presence of mind to do what Republicans in the 1870s did, which was vote against it on the grounds that the Senate doesn’t have the jurisdiction to try former officials.
This means that this piece of political theater will have consequences that will reverberate down the road in ways we can’t even begin to predict.
The Supreme Court could in theory pivot the other way. So could future legislatures. But the Supreme Court has generally avoided intervening in impeachments on grounds other than violations of the specific wording of the Constitution, though even Chief Justice Roberts showed that he believed that this impeachment was illegitimate by refusing to attend.
The 56-44 vote was not only a spiteful attack on President Trump. It not only violated basic norms that distinguished this country’s respect for free speech from Europe, but it was also thoughtless and mindless. Few to none of the 56 seemed to have given any consideration to anything except current politics.
And yet they’ve introduced a fundamental change in the impeachment power that brings it more into line with the systems of old England rather than America.
They’ve turned a proceeding meant to remove elected officials into a free pass for pursuing vendettas against them long after they have left office.
And everyone will likely have cause to regret that.