After being torn between a fuller revenge against former US President Donald Trump and advancing incumbent President Joe Biden’s agenda, both Democrats and Republicans have opted for a short Senate impeachment trial starting on Tuesday.
On Monday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnel hammered out an agreement that could see the Trump’s trial wrap-up within a week or so, allowing Congress to proceed with important legislative work.
Indications are that the trial would only be a catharsis for the Democrats as he would ultimately be acquitted at the Senate because they seem to lack the 67 votes needed in the 100-member upper chamber to convict him.
Trump, who is now living in Florida, has refused to appear before the Senate trial.
On January 13, the former leader was impeached for a second time by the House of Representatives accusing him of instigating the deadly January 6 Capitol riots, paving the way for the judicial-style trial in the Senate.
This is his second impeachment. The first was a year ago on charges for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress ended in his acquittal because all 53 Republicans voted against conviction on one charge and in the other only one, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, switched sides.
This time in the chamber divided 50-50, at least five Republicans are expected to go with the Democrats, a number not sufficient to convict.
Trump’s lawyers in their briefs ahead of the trial have questioned the constitutionality of impeaching a president who is not in office and have raised the constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing free speech against prosecuting Trump for the speech to his supporters that the Democrats say instigated the riots.
Democratic prosecutors have asserted that the impeachment of former presidents is permitted under the constitution and said that his speech was an “incitement of insurrection” and “is the most grievous constitutional crime ever committed by a President”.
Many Democrats chafing under the humiliations heaped on them over four years by Trump wanted an extensive, dramatic trial with witnesses testifying about their ordeal during the attack when the rioters stormed the Capitol and forced their way into the Senate chamber and offices of Congressional leaders.
But Democratic Party’s leadership decided on a quick trial so they can get on with the work of legislating Biden’s Covid-19 recovery package and confirming key officials so the President could have his cabinet in place.
Only seven officials have been approved so far.
The plan for the trial was “eminently fair” and “will allow for the trial to achieve its purpose: truth and accountability”, Schumer said.
Biden himself has not sounded eager for an extensive trial as it could interfere with his agenda.
“His focus is on getting relief to the American people. That’s exactly what he’s conveyed publicly, of course, and privately as well,,” Biden’s Press Secretary Jan Psaki said on Monday.
Democrats are aware that Trump is unlikely to be convicted, which would have prevented him from running for offices in the future now that he is already out of office.
Republican leaders also want to close the Trump chapter as quickly as possible and move on while limiting his opportunities to play the martyr and distract the party from its post-Trump agenda of rebuilding.
The short trial “will give senators, as jurors, ample time to review the case and the arguments that each side will present”, McConnell said.
Unlike in the January 2020 impeachment trial when the prosecution team made up of Democratic Representatives and Trump’s defence team were each given 24 hours over three days to make their arguments, this time they will each get only 16 hours each over two days.
Another wrinkle in the schedule was also ironed out on Monday after Trump’s lawyer David Shoen, a devout Jew, withdrew his request to stop the trial from sundown on February 5 to sundown the next day as his faith prohibited him from working during the period considered the Sabbath.
The trial timetable initially accommodated his request, but now it can continue into the weekend.
Under the agreed schedule when the Senate meets on Tuesday, the prosecutors, known technically as impeachment managers, and Trump’s defence team will argue on the constitutionality of holding the impeachment trial and the Senators will vote on it.
Only a simple majority is required on the trial’s constitutionality for it to proceed.
When the Senate received the Articles of Impeachment, as the chargesheet from the House is known, on January 26 it held a vote on the constitutionality and five Republicans joined the Democrats to vote for it.
When it comes up for a vote on Tuesday, it will be known if any other Republican had switched sides and will give an idea of the final vote for Trump’s conviction.
During the shortened trial, the prosecution is expected to use videos of both Trump’s speech to his supporters before the assault on the Capitol and the attack itself which took place while the while Congress was in the process of approving the electoral college votes making Biden the winner in the November election.
They cite his exhortation to his supporters to march to Congress and “fight like hell” after alleging that the election was “stolen” through extensive fraud even after courts at various levels have ruled against the allegations.
Trump’s lawyers have countered saying that those who attacked the Capitol did so on their own and for their own reasons and not because of what he said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presided over the first impeachment trial, but this time he will not participate because Trump is not the President.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also the President of the Senate, will not preside either.
Instead, Democrat Patrick Leahy, who is President pro-tem of the Senate and the senior-most party Senator will preside over the trial.
(Arul Louis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)