Senate eyes speedy Trump impeachment trial
Senators say a historic second impeachment trial for former President Trump could last just a matter of days in what is shaping up to be a speedy process.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are still trying to get a deal on the organization of the trial, which is scheduled to start on Tuesday.
But senators are signaling they want to get it over with quickly, suggesting it could last roughly a week. Democrats, while arguing Trump’s trial is necessary, are also focusing their political energy on passing coronavirus relief.
“I just can’t imagine that it’s going to go beyond a week,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for this thing from anybody.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), asked about his own preference on trial length, said, “I don’t think it needs to last more than a week.”
“A couple of days for each side would be sufficient,” he added.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a close ally of President Biden, said the trial should last “days.”
“The trial is not something that should take months or weeks. Days. Days. And then we can get back to getting this administration’s team in place,” Carper told reporters.
The agreement sought by McConnell and Schumer would lay out a timeline for the first phase of the trial that includes opening arguments from both the House impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers.
If the Senate doesn’t vote to call witnesses, the trial could then rapidly come to a close with potential motions by senators, deliberations on the charges, closing arguments and then a vote on whether to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors.
The House impeachment managers invited Trump to testify, a request rejected by his lawyers. Democrats haven’t yet said if they will ask to call additional witnesses.
Trump’s first trial lasted 21 days — marking the shortest presidential impeachment trial at the time. Former President Clinton’s trial lasted 37 days, and the trial of former President Andrew Johnson in 1868 lasted 83 days.
Structurally, the upcoming trial will be different, which could allow it to be sped up. The Senate has already been sworn in as the jury, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been sworn in as the presiding officer.
Republicans have also cast one vote on the trial — on the question of whether it was constitutional — though GOP senators have warned that they could force a similar vote against once the trial gets underway.
And while attempts to drag out the trial by Republicans could eat up days of additional time early in Biden’s presidency, top members of the caucus would rather just get the trial over with.
“What we’re hearing is that the Dems, at least the rank-and-file Dems, are saying they don’t want to drag it out. Most of them want to work on other stuff. … So it seems to be both sides mutually interested in a shorter trial,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Hill, questioning if that opened the door to wrapping it up by the first weekend after the trial starts.
A senior GOP senator predicted the trial could be done as soon as Friday or Saturday because “that’s what both sides want to do, probably.”
Under the rules package for Trump’s 2020 impeachment trial, both sides had 24 hours that could be spread out over three days to present their case. Senators then had two days to ask questions.
McConnell, then the majority leader, initially had planned to give both sides two days apiece for opening arguments but ultimately backed down after bipartisan howling. If either the House impeachment managers or Trump’s legal team had wanted to use the full time, it could have resulted in 12-hour sessions.
If the Senate enforces the same deal for Trump’s second trial, that would guarantee it lasts at least eight days, absent House impeachment managers, the former president’s legal team or senators themselves yielding back time.
But senators are also entering largely uncharted territory as they prepare to hold a second impeachment trial for Trump, the first president to go through the process twice. It will also be the first time a trial has been held for a former president and the first time the chief justice has not presided over presidential impeachment proceedings.
The lone article of impeachment against Trump also cites largely public events, including the president’s speech on Jan. 6 in which he urged his supporters to march to the Capitol, where former Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress were counting Biden’s Electoral College win.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told CNN that the trial will be brief because of the straightforward narrative.
“It will be a short trial. It will be an open-and-shut and pretty straightforward set of evidence consisting of what he said in his tweets before to invite and implore these people to come to the Capitol,” Blumenthal said.
That’s a shift from 2020, when the articles involved intricate foreign policy and a long list of players and required that both lawmakers and the American people familiarize themselves with a largely unfamiliar and complicated storyline.
“This is a pretty narrow set of facts. It’s one narrow article. … We are not voting to remove a president office and so I’m not sure that other precedents from prior trials hold,” Murphy said.
Cramer, asked about precedent, said he didn’t think that much time was necessary, adding, “I don’t know why it would take that long.”
Another motivating factor for a quick trial is looming over lawmakers: the one-week Presidents Day recess. It’s the first break for the Senate in 2021 and comes just before the chamber is expected to move at lightning pace to try to get a coronavirus package to Biden’s desk before federal unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.
“Backing it up to Presidents Day recess is a reason I think to get it done, and I think that will probably be a motivating factor for both sides,” Thune said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) floated that the Senate could be in session for part, but not all of, the break, which would still put the trial around the one-week timeline since it starts on Tuesday.
“It sounds like both sides want it to be reasonably short,” Kaine said. “So they’re thinking we could go a little bit into the recess.”
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