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What Rod Blagojevich’s Double Impeachment Could Mean for Trump

Illinois state senators took pains to ensure a fair trial during Governor Blagojevich’s impeachment. U.S. senators would be wise to do the same for President Trump, writes Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

January 16, 2020

Impeach­ments are fortu­nately rare in Amer­ican polit­ical life: Trump is only the third pres­id­ent to have been impeached; eight governors have been impeached and removed from office. 

The most recent was former Illinois Gov. Rod Blago­jevich. He was arres­ted in 2008, after he was caught on a federal wiretap trying to sell the appoint­ment to fill Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. Blago­jevich was also charged with vari­ous crimes related to campaign finance. Patrick J. Fitzger­ald, the federal prosec­utor who led the case against Blago­jevich, said his actions had been so disgrace­ful that they “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” 

Just a month after his arrest, the Illinois legis­lature, led by the governor’s fellow Demo­crats, took steps to remove him. On Janu­ary 9, 2009, during a lame duck session, the Illinois House voted 114–1 in favor of his impeach­ment.

Days later, in an abund­ance of caution, the newly seated House voted to impeach Blago­jevich again, 117–1, thereby neut­ral­iz­ing any argu­ment that the lame duck impeach­ment was inef­fect­ive. The single article of impeach­ment against Blago­jevich for abuse of power had 13 subparts, includ­ing conduct­ing offi­cial acts in exchange for campaign contri­bu­tions, selling Obama’s Senate seat, disreg­ard­ing the separ­a­tion of powers, and viol­at­ing state and federal law. The matter was then sent to the Illinois Senate for a trial. 

The Illinois Senate rules for the trial included empower­ing the cham­ber “…to subpoena witnesses, docu­ments, and other mater­i­als; to compel the attend­ance of witnesses and the produc­tion of docu­ments and other mater­i­als…”  The chief justice of Illinois presided. Proced­ure allowed him to make rulings during the impeach­ment trial, although those could be over­rid­den by a Senate major­ity vote.

Blago­jevich initially refused to parti­cip­ate in the trial. As the Asso­ci­ated Press repor­ted, the seats reserved for him and his attor­ney sat empty in the Senate cham­ber. Instead, the governor went on a media tour that included stops at Good Morn­ing Amer­ica and the View. He claimed that “the fix [was] in the Senate” and called the trial a “kangaroo court.”

Mean­while, back in Illinois, prosec­utors played some damning FBI audio tapes of Blago­jevich during the trial. Fitzger­ald reserved several other FBI tapes for Blago­jevich’s crim­inal prosec­u­tion.

The Senate rules allowed for the governor to give a 90-minute clos­ing argu­ment; he ended up using 46 minutes to protest his inno­cence, arguing that his impeach­ment and removal from office would set a danger­ous preced­ent. But on Janu­ary 29, the Illinois Senate voted unan­im­ously to remove Blago­jevich from office. The convic­tion included a life­time ban from public office in the state.

The follow­ing April, a federal grand jury indicted Blago­jevich on 16 felony counts. Blago­jevich contin­ued his charm offens­ive by going on David Letter­man’s show to protest that his impeach­ment was “a hijack­ing” and later appear­ing in Celebrity Appren­tice, where he was fired by Donald Trump.

As Pres­id­ent Trump faces a trial in the Senate, what lessons can Blago­jevich’s impeach­ment offer?

For one, as more inform­a­tion about Pres­id­ent Trump and his actions vis-a-vis Ukraine spill out into the public, one ques­tion is whether the House might actu­ally add another article of impeach­ment or impeach him twice. The fact that Blago­jevich was impeached twice provides an inter­est­ing histor­ical context: such a thing isn’t just possible, it’s some­thing Amer­ic­ans have seen before. Moreover, on Janu­ary 3, 2020, coun­sel for the House made it clear in a federal court hear­ing that an addi­tional article of impeach­ment for obstruc­tion of justice against Trump was still feas­ible. 

However, Pres­id­ent Trump bene­fits from a Justice Depart­ment policy against indict­ing a sitting pres­id­ent. There was never such a policy with respect to governors like Blago­jevich. Thus, the Illinois legis­lature could take into consid­er­a­tion the federal crim­inal alleg­a­tions against the governor when they considered remov­ing him from office. Nonethe­less, Congress could take into consid­er­a­tion testi­mony from Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, that names the pres­id­ent as a co-conspir­ator in crimes that included lying to Congress and campaign finance viol­a­tions.

The U.S. Senate, if it wished, could crib a few pages from the Illinois Senate’s approach to the impeach­ment trial and play relev­ant audio or video during the trial. During Blago­jevich’s impeach­ment, the state senat­ors made a conscious effort to not comprom­ise the abil­ity of prosec­utors to bring crim­inal cases in the future. The U.S. Senate would be judged well by history if it took similar precau­tions 

Unlike Blago­jevich’s impeach­ment, which had bipar­tisan support in both houses of the Illinois Legis­lature, Trump’s impeach­ment was carried out by a Demo­crat-controlled House, with support from one Inde­pend­ent and no Repub­lic­ans. Currently, Repub­lican senat­ors seem unlikely to defect.

In 2010, the jury in Blago­jevich’s first crim­inal trial dead­locked. He was tried again the follow­ing year and found guilty of 17 of 20 counts and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison, where he remains. Blago­jevich is now seek­ing a pardon from Pres­id­ent Trump. In a likely attempt to curry favor with him, he recently published an op-ed, which richly claimed that even Abra­ham Lincoln would have been impeached by the Demo­crats. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.