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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.