Democracy watchIs Impeaching President Trump “Pointless Revenge”? Not If It Sends a Message to Future Presidents

By Michael Blake

Published 13 January 2021

If Congress chooses to impeach President Trump, it is because there is a need to mark out, through a definitive statement, what no president ought to do. It will also set the moral limits of the presidency – and, thereby, send a message to future presidents who might be tempted to follow in President Trump’s footsteps.

House Democrats have introduced an article of impeachment against President Trump, charging him with “incitement of insurrection” for the siege at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

One immediate difficulty facing those seeking to impeach the president is that impeachment is a lengthy process. Trump has only a few days left in office before his term ends on Jan. 20. While the article of impeachment might be quickly approved by the House, in a vote scheduled for Jan. 13, the vote will initiate a trial in the Senate – and that trial will likely not be finished before Trump’s term of office comes to an end.

There is an open constitutional question about whether a president can be impeached after he has left office. But a more basic question asks about the point of impeaching Trump. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, writing in The Washington Post, described the entire exercise as “pointless revenge.”

“It isn’t principled, it isn’t concerned with justice and it isn’t concerned with the future,” he stated.

As a scholar who writes about the moral justifications of social and legal institutions, I argue that there may be good moral reason for this impeachment – even if it cannot be completed before Trump leaves office.

Impeachment is not a criminal procedure; it is generally described as “quasi-criminal” in American law.

The philosophical justifications given for the institution of criminal law, however, might help us understand the purposes this impeachment might serve.

Impeachment and Criminal Law
Criminal law can serve a variety of functions. It incapacitates the criminal, through incarceration; it serves a retributive function, by forcing the criminal to experience punishment proportionate to the crime; and it expresses a particular view about the limits of moral diversity, by setting a limit to what sorts of action a society will accept.

Incapacitation is likely a bad justification for the impeachment of an outgoing or former president. Incapacitation is intended to stop a criminal from repeating his or her offense. The offense grounding the president’s impeachment, though, was an act of speech, one the article of impeachment describes as “incitement of insurrection.” A president who is impeached and removed from office is precluded from holding federal office in the future; that, however, does nothing to remove the power of Trump to speak.

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