What happens when the sitting President of the United States can no longer carry out his duties due to death, resignation, removal from office, or incapacitation? That was one of the issues addressed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution back in the 18th century, but unfortunately not thoroughly so — ambiguities of wording and unanticipated circumstances have required that the Constitution be amended several times to cover situations not originally foreseen.
Even today, some questions about presidential succession and eligibility remain, giving rise to various thought exercises such as the following:
Although the particular scenario outlined in the above meme is a hypothetical, we can say that its description of how to restore to office a President who has been impeached and removed from office would almost certainly fail in real life for practical and/or legal reasons.
How the Impeachment Process Works
For openers, let’s summarize the process of removing a President from office. The House Judiciary Committee holds hearings to discuss the charges against the President (similar to a grand jury pondering an indictment), prepares articles of impeachment outlining those charges, and (if a majority of the committee votes to approve the articles), sends them to the full House for debate and vote.
If a majority of the full House votes for impeachment based on one or more of those articles, then the President must stand trial in the Senate. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict at the culmination of that trial, the President is automatically removed from office and, if the Senate so decides, may be barred from holding any high governmental position again.
Can an Impeached President Be Pardoned?
But could the removed President’s successor make use of constitutional powers to pardon him and engage a scheme to reinstall him to the presidency by appointing him Vice President?
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution states that “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.” So if the Senate voted to convict a sitting President and thereby remove him from office, they could also vote to permanently disqualify him from holding federal office again.
However, none of that judgment could be undone by a presidential pardon, because Article II, Section 2 (which establishes the presidential pardon privilege) states that “The President … shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” (If this were not the case, then a sitting President facing impeachment could simply pardon himself and thus avoid any punishment.)
What if the Senate voted to remove a President from office but did not also vote to bar him from holding office again? That’s where the practicality part of this exercise kicks in.
Could a Removed President Be Appointed Vice President?
Let’s imagine a President is impeached and removed from office, and the Vice President thereby assumes the presidency. Now the office of Vice President is vacant and needs to be filled. Could the just-removed President step into that role?
Amendment XXV of the U.S. Constitution specifies that “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.” Theoretically, anyone who was constitutionally eligible to hold office could be nominated for the VP slot. But how likely is it that the same Congress that just voted overwhelmingly to oust a politician from the highest office in the land would then turn right around and approve appointing that same person to the second-highest office? We’ll go with “not very likely.”
About the only way this scenario could conceivably play out in real life would be if the following sequence of events took place:
1) A President were impeached and removed from office but not permanently barred from holding office.
2) An election that altered the makeup of Congress intervened before a new Vice President could be nominated and approved.
3) The results of that election tilted Congress in favor of the recently deposed President.
4) The newly seated Congress opted to make one of their first acts of business the audacious re-installation to power of a President who had just been drummed out of office.
But, Could It All Work?
All of the maneuvering described above would only get the former President as far the vice presidency. Elevating him back into the position of chief executive would require that the current President be so pliant as to willingly step aside to make room for someone who had just been kicked out of office — an act that would have no obvious upside to it for the recently installed President (given that achieving the presidency is generally considered the pinnacle of any politician’s career).
All in all, it’s possible that under an extremely contrived and convoluted sequence of events, a President who had been impeached and removed from office could regain the White House without standing for election again … but the likelihood of circumstances lining up just right to make that happen are practically zero. And the presidential power to pardon would be irrelevant to that process.