Senate looks to avoid dragged-out Trump impeachment battle
The Senate is preparing for a quick impeachment trial for former President Trump, as lawmakers signal little interest in dragging out the proceeding.
Under a deal announced Monday between Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the trial could wrap in one week, setting the stage for a vote on conviction as soon as Feb. 16.
Though the trial is historic and unprecedented — Trump is the first president to be impeached twice, and the first to face a trial after leaving office — the outcome is all but guaranteed. That’s laying the groundwork for what’s likely to be the fastest presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history after Trump’s first one lasted approximately three weeks.
“It’s pretty simple. … That’s not as complicated as it was a year ago,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), endorsing the one-week timeline.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he was supportive of the speedy approach because it has buy-in from leadership and both sides in the trial.
“As long as the parties think that’s right — we want to do it quickly because we want to do COVID relief,” Kaine said.
The trial will kick off Tuesday afternoon with up to four hours of debate and a vote on whether the proceedings are constitutional. Republican senators have seized the argument that the Senate doesn’t have the ability to try Trump now that he’s out of office — an argument rejected by most legal experts across the political spectrum.
Tuesday’s vote is expected to send a clear signal early on about where the trial will end: Trump’s acquittal. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) forced a similar vote late last month, with only five GOP senators voting to set aside the attempt to declare the upcoming trial unconstitutional. That’s substantially less than the 17 votes Democrats would need to be able to find Trump guilty.
After Tuesday’s debate and vote, the Senate is expected to set a frantic pace through the trial, condensing what would have been weeks in previous trials to a matter of days.
Oral arguments are scheduled to get underway at noon Wednesday. Both the House impeachment managers and Trump’s legal team will have 16 hours to make their case over the course of two days each. That’s a shift from both the Clinton trial and Trump’s first trial, when both sides were given 24 hours over three days to present opening arguments.
The timeline will put the Senate on track to finish opening arguments over the weekend, if both sides use all of their time. Unlike previous trials, senators had not been expected to meet on Saturday at the request of Trump’s attorneys in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. But Trump’s attorney withdrew his request to pause the trial between Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, potentially shifting the trial schedule before the Senate approves the organizing resolution on Tuesday.
After that, senators will have four hours to ask questions — a significant reduction of the two days used in recent trials.
The contours of the trial come as leadership has scrambled to finalize the agreement after a change-up in Trump’s legal representation delayed the talks. The Senate has also been deep in a fight over coronavirus relief, which kept the Senate in session until after 5 a.m. Friday, mentally pushing the impeachment trial to the back burner.
Schumer, after giving no public hints in recent days about the timeline for the trial, disclosed on Monday that he, McConnell and representatives of both sides were finalizing a resolution. Leadership subsequently announced a deal.
“The structure we have all agreed to is eminently fair. It will allow for the trial to achieve its purpose: truth and accountability. That’s what trials are designed to do — to arrive at the truth of a matter and render a verdict,” Schumer said.
McConnell also defended the agreement, saying it would provide “ample time” to hear and consider the arguments.
Senators are also juggling the trial with trying to get President Biden’s administration in place. The Senate has confirmed seven nominations for Biden so far, and additional floor votes are expected to be on hold until the trial concludes.
Democrats are also trying to quickly craft a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package after passing a budget resolution on Friday that will let them bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster in the Senate on the subsequent aid bill.
Democrats stress that they aren’t trying to rush Trump’s second impeachment trial, saying they have an obligation to hold the proceeding after the Jan. 6 attack and the House moved forward with its impeachment article.
“We don’t have a choice. Future presidents, future office holders will feel like they can have impunity. We have to do it,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told MSNBC on Monday.
One hurdle that could drag out the trial is if impeachment managers decide they want to call witnesses — something that remains in limbo.
“It really depends what the managers want and what the defense team needs to put on” their case, Kaine said.
Built into the trial’s organizing resolution is the option to debate and vote on calling witnesses. The House impeachment managers sent a request to Trump last week that he testify under oath, a request that was quickly shot down by his lawyers and dismissed by senators.
“If the managers decide they want witnesses, there will be a vote on that, which is the option they requested in regard to witnesses,” Schumer said.
Democrats, while noting that they will defer to impeachment managers, have signaled they don’t think witnesses are needed after Trump’s speech to supporters and the deadly attack on the Capitol played out in real time.
It’s a shift from 2020 when Democrats made multiple failed attempts to call witnesses in what was then a GOP-led Senate.
But Democrats say the current trial presents a more streamlined case, unlike last year when senators and the American public needed to be familiarized with a complex web of people involved in Trump’s Ukraine policy.
“If the House managers want to call witnesses then I think we should allow them to do so,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s a different trial in the sense that, you know, in the first trial we didn’t see what happened.”
“The American public didn’t have a window into the decisions that were being made behind closed doors to trade American influence in order for campaign help,” he added. “This time we saw what happened in real time, President Trump sent that angry mob to the Capitol on live TV.”