Iowa's junior senator thinks the impeachment proceedings slated to begin against former President Donald Trump are unconstitutional, but she believes he bears some blame for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Joni Ernst, speaking from Washington to Iowa reporters, said she would continue to hear new evidence from constitutional scholars on both sides of the issue.
Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday tried to force a vote on the question of the constitutionality of impeaching a former president. There were 45 Republicans who supported a vote on the question — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky — but five Republicans joined 50 Democrats table it. Since conviction requires 67 senators, it signals an uphill battle for Democrats to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection.
"Impeachment is for removal from office, and the accused here has already left office," Paul said.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said past practice and precedence show the proceedings to be constitutional, including citing a clause for impeachment to bar the convicted from further holding public office. "If the framers intended impeachment to merely be a vehicle to remove sitting officials from their office, they would not have included that additional provision: disqualification from future office," he said.
Ernst said she remains open to hearing presentations but believes as of Tuesday an impeachment trial wouldn't be constitutional. She and fellow Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley supported Paul's question on Tuesday.
"I do, right now, believe that it is unconstitutional," Ernst said. "I've read scholars on both sides of the issue. We will have additional presentations given to us from people on both sides of the issue."
She does hold Trump responsible in some ways for the insurrection that prompted the articles of impeachment, which the U.S. House passed by the most bipartisan margin seen in history.
"I think President Trump did exhibit poor leadership," she said. "I believe that he should have been out much sooner telling the crowd, 'We're peacefully protesting, don't do these actions.' He didn't do that soon enough."
But that failure, in her view, doesn't meet the definition of the impeachment charge: inciting an insurrection.
"I don't believe that ... it does meet that definition," Ernst said. "But I'll listen to those arguments."
Senators were sworn in as jurors Tuesday, but the trial isn't expected to start until Feb. 9.
Ernst, and some Republicans like Paul, have likened the proceedings to an impeachment of a private citizen, and warning of the precedent that could be set. The impeachment articles were passed while Trump was still in office, but the trial will take place after he has left office.
Impeachment is not the only way Trump could be held accountable, Ernst said. "If the president is truly guilty of something else we have remedies through the courts for that. So if there truly is a case there he can still be held accountable," she said.
The impeachment has brought significant debate among constitutional scholars. Many who say Trump's second impeachment trial would be constitutional point to the impeachment of War Secretary William Worth Belknap in 1876. Belknap resigned as the U.S. House was set to vote on his impeachment for corruption. Belknap, a former Iowan, was ultimately acquitted by the Senate at the time voted 37-29 to declare the impeachment as constitutional, even though he had already left office.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service filed a report on Jan. 15 declaring "most scholars who have closely examined the question have concluded that Congress has authority to extend the impeachment process to officials who are no longer in office."