House Republicans increasingly find themselves on a collision course over efforts to expunge the impeachments of former President Trump, a battle that pits hard-line conservatives — who are pressing for a vote — against moderates already warning GOP leaders they'll reject it.
The promised opposition from centrist Republicans all but ensures the resolutions would fail if they hit the floor. And it puts Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a no-win situation.
If he doesn't stage the vote, he risks the ire of Trump and his allies. If he does, the measures would be shot down, validating Trump's impeachments just as his legal troubles are piling up.
The issue is just the latest in a long string of debates challenging McCarthy’s ability to keep his conference united while Trump — the GOP’s presidential front-runner who’s also facing two criminal indictments — hovers in the background.
The expungement concept is hardly new. A group of House Republicans — including Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) — introduced legislation last month designed to erase Trump’s impeachments from the historical record.
But the debate reached new heights last week when Politico reported that McCarthy — after suggesting publicly that Trump is not the strongest contender for the GOP presidential nomination — raced to make amends, in part by promising to vote on expungement before the end of September.
McCarthy has denied he ever made such a promise. But the denial only magnified the issue in the public eye — and amplified the conservative calls for the Speaker to bring the measure for a vote.
“It should definitely come to the floor and be expunged,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the Freedom Caucus and vocal Trump ally.
“I’m hoping to see it get done before August recess,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a lead sponsor of one of the resolutions, told reporters, later adding that “these are impeachments that should’ve never happened, and so we would like to expunge them.”
The expungement push is anathema to many moderate Republicans, particularly those facing tough reelections in competitive districts, who are treading carefully not to link themselves too closely with Trump.
Some of those lawmakers are already vowing to vote against the measure if it hits the floor — all but guaranteeing its failure given the Republicans’ narrow House majority — and some of them are proactively reaching out to GOP leaders to warn them against staging such a vote.
“I have every expectation I'll vote against expungement, and I have every expectation that I will work to bring others with me,” said one moderate Republican who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, noting “I think my views represent a fair number of principled conservatives.”
“We can't change history. I mean, that impeachment vote happened. And I just don't think we should be engaged in the kind of cancel culture that tries to whitewash history.”
The lawmaker added: “I’ve communicated that with leadership.”
A majority-Democrat House impeached Trump twice during his four-year reign in the White House.
The first instance, in late 2019, stemmed from Trump’s threat to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless that country’s leaders launched a corruption investigation into Trump’s chief political rival, Joe Biden. The second, in early 2021, targeted Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was conducted by Trump supporters trying to overturn his election defeat.
The votes made Trump just the third U.S. president to be impeached and the first to have it happen twice. His Republican allies have long accused Democrats of abusing their authority for the sole purpose of damaging a political foe.
Expunging an impeachment has never been attempted. And opponents of the move in both parties are quick to point out that it has no practical significance because the impeachments happened and can’t be reversed.
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“There's no procedure for expunging an impeachment,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor who led Trump’s second impeachment. “It's completely meaningless.”
Others pointed out that Trump has already been exonerated by the Senate, which failed to convict him after both impeachments, making any new process pointless.
“They’re silly,” centrist Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said in a text message. “When do we expunge a not guilty verdict?”
The pushback hasn’t discouraged Trump’s allies from pressing ahead for expungement, if only as a symbolic show of solidarity with the embattled former president.
McCarthy, who relied on Trump’s backing to win the Speaker’s gavel this year, threw his support behind expungement in late June, telling reporters the first punishment “was not based on true facts,” and the second was “on the basis of no due process.”
“I think it is appropriate, just as I thought before, that you should expunge it because it never should have gone through,” he said.
After fading from prominence for about a month, the conversation over expungement cropped back up following Politico's report, which came days after the former president said he received a “target letter” from the Justice Department informing him he is the subject of their investigation into his efforts to remain in power following the 2020 election — which includes the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The receipt of a target letter is often a sign that charges will soon be filed, which would mark Trump’s third indictment in recent months — and his second on the federal level. That prospect has only amped up Trump’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill and could fuel efforts to expunge the two rebukes he received while in office.
“Every time you pile something on Trump, his numbers go up,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.). “I'm surprised the Democrats aren't just wanting to ignore him.”
The discourse over expungement, however, is dividing House Republicans at a precarious moment for McCarthy as Congress stares down a Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government or risk a shutdown.
The appropriations process is already causing controversy within the House GOP conference, as hard-line conservatives — many of them close Trump allies — push leadership to enact aggressive cuts, which includes setting spending at levels lower than the agreement McCarthy struck with President Biden in May.
Trump has thus far stayed out of that debate, as he’d done earlier in the year during the debt-ceiling battle. But he remains a wildcard in the weeks leading up to the shutdown deadline, especially if his legal problems worsen and the pressure on his congressional allies to provide some form of exoneration — even if symbolic — grows more pronounced.
Democrats, meanwhile, are not sympathetic.
“The Republicans face a serious political problem,” Raskin said, “because they have wrapped their party around the fortunes and the ambitions of Donald Trump.”
Emily Brooks contributed.