Viral Tweet Distorts Facts on Consequences of Impeachment
By Angelo Fichera
Posted on January 12, 2021
A viral tweet that migrated to Facebook distorts the facts on the consequences of a potential, second impeachment of President Donald Trump. Impeachment alone would not strip Trump of his pension or bar him from pursuing office in the future, as the post falsely claims.
The House is pursuing a potential, second impeachment of President Donald Trump — charging him with “incitement of insurrection” that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. A vote is expected in the House on Jan. 13.
But a viral message shared by left-leaning pages on social media distorts the facts surrounding the legal ramifications of an impeachment. Its false message is in part premised on a failure to distinguish between an impeachment (by the House) and a subsequent conviction and removal from office (which is a decision by the Senate). But the post is inaccurate for other reasons, too.
The post, a screenshot of a tweet, reads: “For those wondering if it’s worth impeaching him this time, it means he: 1) loses his 200K+ pension for the rest of his life 2) loses his 1 million dollar/year travel allowance 3) loses lifetime full secret service detail 4) loses his ability to run in 2024.” The original tweet was retweeted more than 180,000 times before it was deleted.
But an impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House does not alone result in any of those penalties.
For starters, the prospect of Trump losing “the ability to run in 2024” is not an automatic result of an impeachment, or even a conviction by the Senate. If the Senate did convict a president (which to date has never been done), a separate vote would be required to also disqualify him from holding future office.
Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University law professor, noted to FactCheck.org that there is some debate over whether the Constitution’s language about such disqualification applies to the presidency. Kalt, for his part, said he believes it does.
Peter J. Smith, a George Washington University professor who specializes in constitutional law, said in a phone interview that the argument that the presidency wouldn’t qualify for disqualification is generally considered an “outlier view” — and one that is “based on a very close parsing of constitutional text” and “that would lead to some very surprising results.”
As for stripping Trump of the benefits afforded to former presidents, the Former Presidents Act addresses eligibility for benefits — such as the pension, staff and an annual “security and travel” allowance. The act says those benefits would not apply to a president whose service is terminated “by removal pursuant to section 4 of article II of the Constitution of the United States of America,” which addresses impeachment and removal from office. (The emphasis is ours.)
It appears unlikely that a potential Senate trial — and therefore any possible conviction — would take place before Trump leaves office on Jan. 20. (We also note that there is some legal debate over the process of conducting an impeachment trial after a president leaves office.)
Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, argues that in his reading of the law, the exclusion of benefits would not apply to a president who is convicted in the Senate after having already left office.
“If Trump is impeached before January 20, and convicted after January 20, he would still be a ‘former President,’” Blackman wrote in a Jan. 10 post on Reason.com. “Why? A ‘former President’ cannot be removed from a position he no longer holds.”
Smith, the George Washington University professor, said that was a reasonable read of the law’s text but also said there could, in theory, be judges who would find that Congress meant to disqualify presidents who are convicted in an impeachment trial — and that it hadn’t considered presidents convicted after leaving office.
Either way, the viral post is wrong by saying that impeachment alone would result in the loss of such benefits. And there are other issues with the post, too.
It says that Trump “loses lifetime full secret service detail” if impeached.
But legal experts said it was unlikely Trump would lose Secret Service protection even if he were convicted and removed from office before Jan. 20.
Citing another part of federal law, 18 U.S. Code § 3056, Blackman wrote that it’s possible Trump would still be eligible for the Secret Service protection even if the president was removed from office. CNN points out that former President Barack Obama signed a law in 2013 that amended that part of the U.S. Code to authorize lifetime Secret Service protection for former presidents, and that it does not define “former president.”
“It isn’t clear that Section 3056 extends to a removed President, but I think the best reading, in context, is that it should,” Blackman told us in an email.
Cary Coglianese, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and political science, said: “If President Trump were to be impeached and then convicted and removed from office before January 20, 2021, he would almost certainly not automatically lose the Secret Service protection which he would otherwise expect to receive after January 20, 2021.”
Coglianese in an email to FactCheck.org said the Former Presidents Act authorizes funds “appropriated to the Administrator of General Services” — which is separate from the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security. “The power of the Secret Service to protect former Presidents is authorized by separate statute (18 USC 3056),” he said.
In short, he said that there was no reason to think the definition of a “former president” used in the Former Presidents Act would apply to the Secret Service protections provided to former presidents under 18 U.S. Code § 3056.
We also asked the Secret Service to address this point and didn’t hear back; we’ll update this story if we do.
Finally, the Former Presidents Act authorizes the $1 million per fiscal year for “security and travel related expenses” for former presidents “[p]rovided… the former President… was not receiving protection for a lifetime provided by the United States Secret Service under section 3056 paragraph (a) subparagraph (3) of title 18, United States Code.”
In other words, the law does not provide former presidents with both lifetime Secret Service protection and the $1 million travel and security allowance, as the post suggests.
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18 U.S. Code § 3056 – Powers, authorities, and duties of United States Secret Service. Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.
3 U.S. Code § 102 – Compensation of the President. Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.
“ArtI.S3.C7.1.1 Judgment in Cases of Impeachment: Overview.” Constitution Annotated. Congress.gov. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.
Blackman, Josh. Professor, South Texas College of Law Houston. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 Jan 2021.
Blackman, Josh. “Under the Former Presidents Act, A Removed President Does Not Receive a Pension, Office Staff, Office Space, and Secret Service Protection (Updated).” Reason.com. 10 Jan 2021.
Coglianese, Cary. Professor of law and political science, University of Pennsylvania. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 Jan 2021.
Dale, Daniel. “Fact check: No, impeachment itself would not ban Trump from a 2024 run.” CNN. 11 Jan 2021.
“Former Presidents Act.” National Archives. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.
Garber, Ross (@rossgarber). “1/ Can the Senate disqualify an impeached/convicted POTUS from being elected again to the Presidency? I think so BUT -It has never been decided by any court or Congress (no POTUS has been convicted by Senate). -Some legal scholars say a convicted/DQ’d POTUS can be elected again.” Twitter. 9 Jan 2021.
“Impeachment.” U.S. Senate. Accessed 11 Jan 2021.
Kalt, Brian. Professor of law, Michigan State University. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 Jan 2021.
Smith, Peter J. Professor, George Washington University. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 12 Jan 2021.
U.S. House. “H.R.6620 – Former Presidents Protection Act of 2012.” (as signed into law 10 Jan 2013)