House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to ask Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Donald Trump from office for unfitness, after he incited a mob to attack the Capitol in an effort to thwart the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Later in the day, there were multiple reports that Pence, supported by “several Cabinet members,” is refusing to take this advice on grounds that it would make the chaos in Washington worse rather than better.
So if Democrats want to amp up the pressure on Pence to act before Trump declares martial law or starts a war, they’ll need to make impeachment and removal a credible threat. The main question is whether, with 12 and a half days left before Joe Biden’s inauguration, there is time to boot Trump out of office to make sure he leaves as expeditiously as possible?
The short answer is: almost certainly not.
To be sure, there are no timelines for impeachment and removal from office in the Constitution, which simply stipulates that the House may impeach a president or other government official for treason, bribery, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors, and the Senate must try that person. But past impeachments of presidents and other executive or judicial officials have taken a whole lot longer than two weeks, even if you ignore all the preliminary hearings and investigations and just look at the time between the drafting of articles of impeachment and the end of the Senate trial. In the earlier Trump impeachment, considered a very fast process, the House unveiled articles of impeachment on December 10, 2019, and impeached Trump eight days later. Yes, there was a lull before the Senate trial, but that was because Pelosi, for tactical reasons, didn’t formally transmit the articles to the Senate for weeks. One they were sent over, on January 15, 2020, it took the Senate three weeks to hold the trial and acquit Trump.
There are a few insta-impeachments of judges in the historical records, but they mostly involved facts of wrongdoing previously established in criminal proceedings, and the abbreviated trials generally followed investigations and hearings conducted by committees that were delegated those tasks by the Senate (a procedure upheld by the Supreme Court in a famous decision that makes it clear the House and Senate are largely masters of their own impeachment procedures).
The main constraint on the Senate is its own standing rules on impeachment trials, which can only be modified in the short term by unanimous agreement. Because these standing rules prioritize a full opportunity for presentation of arguments by both the president’s attorneys and House impeachment managers, and questioning of the advocates by senators, they generally make it very difficult to rush a verdict.
In theory, House Democrats could telescope their part of the process by quickly drafting articles of impeachment, getting them through the judiciary committee, and then through the House in a few days. Presumably we’d be talking about simple articles based on the established facts of what happened in Washington on January 6 — when, as Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney neatly put it: “There’s no question the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
But it would be much harder for the Senate, with its traditions of open debate and easy amendment, and given the provisions of the standing rules, to whip through a trial in whatever time the House left them. At a minimum, an expeditious trial would depend on avid assistance from Mitch McConnell and a majority of Republican senators (18 of whom would be needed to vote for removal of Trump when the trial ends). Yes, Democrats have “won” control of the Senate, but they won’t take over until their two Georgia victories have been certified; the deadline for that is not until January 22.
Keep in mind, as well, that any plan to race toward removal of Trump from office prior to January 20 will collide with preparations for Biden’s inaugural ceremonies, which, as they grow near, will convince many observers there’s no risk in letting Trump leave office under his own power.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that Pelosi and Schumer will still want to move ahead on impeachment for symbolic reasons, or simply because they consider it their duty to condemn Trump’s behavior, even if there are no consequences other than giving the 45th president a swift kick in the pants on his way out the door. There’s even an argument to be made for beginning impeachment proceedings that are expected to extend beyond inauguration day aimed not at removing Trump from office but on banning him from future office. The prospect of being debarred from a 2024 comeback bid might even have an effect on Trump himself, certainly far more than the remote threat of his first term being terminated a day or two early. But there’s clearly no time for deep deliberation on Congress’s course of action.