NEW YORK/WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump risks losing benefits a former president is entitled to, including a lifetime pension and up to $1 million per year for security and travel, if he is removed from office by impeachment.
Trump may also be disqualified from running for office again. An impeachment trial would also put all members of Congress on the spot over where they stand on the Jan. 6 riot by Trump supporters at the Capitol.
These are among the reasons that the Democratic Party leadership is pursuing the impeachment path, even if the proceedings are almost certain not to conclude during the next nine days that Trump is in office.
But the unprecedented nature of an end-of-term impeachment leaves many aspects in the fog. For President-elect Joe Biden, it also raises the concern that a prolonged impeachment trial in the Senate early in his presidency may delay the confirmation of key officials.
The Former Presidents Act, a 1958 federal law, stipulates that a former president receives benefits that include a monthly pension for life at the rate "of the head of an executive department," which exceeds $200,000 a year; an office staff with aggregate pay of up to $96,000 per year; and "office space appropriately furnished and equipped." Up to $1 million a year is authorized for "security and travel related expenses," unless the former president already has lifetime Secret Service protection.
When a former president dies, his widow is entitled to a $20,000 annual pension.
Not so fast, says Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. The Former Presidents Act says that the pensions and benefits apply to all "former presidents," unless their service in office was terminated by "removal pursuant to section 4 of article II of the Constitution of the United States of America" -- that is, impeachment.
Blackman agrees that Trump will lose his pension, his office and staff benefits -- but perhaps not his Secret Service security detail -- if he is impeached, tried and convicted while in office.
But if Trump is impeached, but not convicted and removed before Jan. 20, the day Biden takes office, he would remain a "former president" under the Former Presidents Act because "a former president cannot be 'removed' from a position he no longer holds," Blackman told Nikkei Asia. The Democrats' only consolation prize may be to ban Trump from running again.
After a president is impeached by the House of Representatives, the Senate conducts a trial where a two-thirds vote is required for conviction.
If he is convicted, the Senate can also disqualify him from holding office again with a separate simple-majority vote.
"In 10 days, we move forward and rebuild -- together," Biden tweeted Sunday. His tweets that day included cabinet appointments and COVID-19 relief but did not address impeaching Trump.
Biden said Monday that he had spoken with some representatives and senators about impeachment and that the question is whether a trial could be held while simultaneously pushing other congressional proceedings along.
"Can you go half a day on dealing with the impeachment and half a day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate, as well as moving on the [stimulus] package?" he asked reporters in Delaware. "So that's my hope and expectation."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told fellow Democrats that the chamber would start impeachment proceedings Wednesday if Vice President Mike Pence does not respond to a resolution that will call on him to invoke the constitution's 25th Amendment to remove Trump.
This would make Trump, a Republican, the only U.S. president ever to be impeached twice.
"I've thought for a long, long time that President Trump wasn't fit to hold the job," Democrat Biden said Friday when asked whether he supported impeaching Trump. But the decision is up to Congress, he said.
Biden's caution stems from concerns that impeachment proceedings could take over his first days in office.
An impeachment trial would take top priority in the Senate and could significantly delay confirmations for key appointments, including to the cabinet.
Some Republicans have publicly denounced Trump since last week's events. But many still stand with the president. A PBS NewsHour-Marist College poll found that while 18% of Republicans were in favor of Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol, 69% said Trump deserved little to no blame for their violent actions.
Speculation over Trump's possible impeachment and self-pardon highlights the choice Republicans face on whether to support or to break with the president. He still enjoys strong support among loyalists and received more than 74 million votes in the election. How the Republican Party responds to the Jan. 6 incident could impact the future of both the party and the nation.
The timeline set by senior Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate's outgoing majority leader, means that a Trump impeachment trial likely could not conclude before Inauguration Day. Some Democrats are now pushing to send the article of impeachment to the Senate after Biden's first 100 days -- a critical period for any new presidency. The debate on the exact schedule of Trump's impeachment is only expected to intensify.