In reciting the history, the brief misleads the Senate. It correctly points out that in the case of WIlliam W. Belknap—a member of the Ulysses Grant administration who was impeached after resigning from office—the Senate voted 37 to 29 that it had jurisdiction. It then correctly points out that the Senate ultimately acquitted Belknap “after plenary consideration of the merits of the case.” But it fails to tell the most important fact: that Belknap was acquitted because more than 20 senators, who believed he was guilty of the underlying offenses, voted for acquittal on the ground that the Senate lacked jurisdiction to try a former official.
So let’s understand what’s at stake here. A majority of the Senate is seeking the new and unprecedented power to disqualify a future candidate for office who is now a private citizen. That unprecedented power would undercut democracy by giving several hundred people the authority to determine whether millions of Americans could vote for a candidate in a future election. It would be a dangerous extension of Congress’s constitutional power to impeach and remove sitting civil officers. If, on the other hand, the Senate were to acquit citizen Trump on the grounds that it lacked the authority to try a former public official, that vote would be consistent with the precedent of Belknap and other cases. More importantly, it would also be consistent with the language of the Constitution and its most influential framer.