The Constitution’s authors contemplated the arrest of a current or former president. At several points since the nation’s founding, our leaders have been called before the bar of justice.
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution says that when a federal government official is impeached and removed from office, they “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.”Tench Coxe Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
In his 1788 defense of this constitutional provision, Alexander Hamilton noted that, unlike the British king, for whom “there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable, no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution,” a president once removed from office would “be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” Trump has been impeached twice but not removed from office.
As a scholar with expertise in legal history and criminal law, I believe the punishment our nation’s founders envisioned for government leaders removed from office would also apply to those who left office in other ways.
Tench Coxe, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress from 1788 to 1789, echoed Hamilton. He explained that while the Constitution’s speech or debate clause permanently immunized members of Congress from liability for anything they might do or say as part of their official duties, the president “is not so much protected as that of a member of the House of Representatives, for he may be proceeded against like any other man in the ordinary course of law.”
In Coxe’s view, even a sitting president could be arrested, tried and punished for violating the law. Though Coxe didn’t say it explicitly, I’d argue that it follows that if presidents can be charged with a crime while in office, once out of office, they can be held responsible like anyone else.