Impeachment Ethics: Recusal and the Conflicted Four

Updated: Feb 25, 2021


In just a few days the Senate will begin hearings to determine the fate of Donald Trump's future as President of the United States. There are only two articles of impeachment that were filed against the President and approved by the House of Representatives. Both articles assert that the President acted improperly by 1) soliciting foreign influence from the Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his chief 2020 election opponent, and 2) withholding $391 million in security assistance to help the Ukraine defend against Russian aggression.


Senate Democrats and Republicans will debate the merits of the case against President Trump. Of particular interest is whether or not Senators Booker, Warren, Sanders, and Klobuchar should recuse themselves from the Senate hearings due to an apparent conflict of interest. All four are candidates for the 2020 Presidential election so each have a stake in the impeachment outcome as they seek to become the lone nominee for the Democratic Party.


Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) addressed this issue head-on in his December 9, 2019 article, Presidential candidates servicing in the Senate must recuse themselves from impeachment proceedings. Smith persuasively argues the following:

It is important to note, Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 of the United States Constitution requires senators to swear an oath when sitting on a trial of impeachment. This oath, which is enshrined in our Constitution and laid out in Rule XXV of the Senate Rules in Impeachment Trials, requires senators to, “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.” It is simply impossible for those senators running for office with the sole purpose of removing Donald Trump to uphold that oath.


Impartiality is a fundamental requirement to the rule of law and the administration of justice in America. In essence, impartiality means to be without bias and unfairness and the equal treatment of all parties involved. When it comes to the impeachment process, impartiality remains equally important and requires that there be no compromise on the part of all presiding legislators. For the four Democratic Senators to be both Presidential candidate and impeachment official, this is beyond the appearance of impropriety: it is a constitutional catastrophe, as expressed in Smith's quote above, and an egregious conflict of interest. In fact, the Senate impeachment committee has a prima facie duty to do everything it can to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because of the political nature of impeachments and the political fallout that could result if the appearance were allowed to persist.


The credibility of the Senate as an institution and the integrity of the impeachment process is in severe crisis should these four Senators exempt themselves from recusal. Consider the following from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics:

Preamble to Senate Resolution 266, 90th Congress, 2d Session, March 22, 1968

The Preamble to S. Res. 266, by which the Senate Code of Official Conduct was first adopted, provides that:

(a)  The ideal concept of public office, expressed by the words, “a public office is a public trust,” signifies that the officer has been entrusted with public power by the people; that the officer holds this power in trust to be used only for their benefit and never for the benefit of himself or of a few; and that the officer must never conduct his own affairs so as to infringe on the public interest.  All official conduct of Members of the Senate should be guided by this paramount concept of public office.

(b)  These rules, as the written expression of certain standards of conduct, complement the body of unwritten but generally accepted standards that continue to apply to the Senate.


Without recusal by the conflicted four, the Senate ethics provision above becomes meaningless, toothless, and impotent. Constitutional rigor must be restored in order to preserve the public trust and the ideals of Constitutional authority. We cannot allow political interest to compromise the efficacy of government and the administration of justice as fairness. It is that important and yet that simple, and politics in the Republic should not suffer to bias, rank partisanship, and juridical injustice.

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