Viewer’s guide: Burning questions as Trump trial starts
The Senate will begin hearing the House impeachment managers’ case against President Donald Trump this week on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
In a trial set to begin Tuesday at 1 p.m., the seven Democrats will argue that the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” by withholding military aid to pressure Ukraine to announce politically advantageous investigations, and by blocking a congressional investigation.
Republicans are largely standing by Trump, arguing that House Democrats rushed the investigation and failed to make their case. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s not an impartial juror and that he is working in “total coordination” with Trump’s defense lawyers.
Where to watch
The cable news networks, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, are likely to show significant portions of the trial. C-SPAN 2, which covers Senate floor proceedings, will broadcast it on cable and online.
Starting Tuesday, the trial is expected to run every day but Sunday, beginning at 1 p.m., under Senate rules adopted in 1986.
McConnell will offer a resolution supplementing the rules to track the procedures used in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trial by setting time limits for each side’s opening arguments followed by questions from senators.
After that, senators would decide whether to call witnesses and seek additional documents.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to offer amendments calling for more documents and testimony from four witnesses. Debate over the rules will take place behind closed doors, barring the unlikely success of a Democratic bid to keep deliberations open. The roll call votes on the resolution and amendments will be held in public.
Trump has suggested that, at this point, Senate Republicans should move to dismiss the articles of impeachment, saying that holding a trial “gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility.” But while some senators close to Trump want a dismissal vote, McConnell last week ruled it out, saying there wasn’t enough GOP support.
The trial then would move forward. The impeachment managers would go first, likely taking two to three days to make their case. Trump’s defense team would have a similar amount of time.
Senators would then ask questions in writing to Chief Justice John Roberts, who would read them to the legal teams.
Either the legal teams or senators may call on Roberts to make procedural decisions. In Clinton’s trial, a senator objected to the lawmakers being referred to as jurors, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed.
Roberts can also choose to put procedural issues up for a vote, and any decision he makes can be overruled by a majority vote of the senators.
Trump has tweeted that the senators should not seek testimony from witnesses or subpoena additional documents, arguing that “all of this work was supposed to be done by the House,” a line echoed by Republican leadership. But four Republicans — Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — have said they’re open to joining with Democrats to call witnesses.
Again, the debate on this decision will likely be held in secret, and any votes would be public.
The Senate would decide whether the witnesses would testify in public, be questioned in a private deposition, or both.
No routine session
The trial will play out much differently than a regular Senate session. Freshman senators normally take turns presiding over the Senate. Instead, it will be the chief justice.
Senators often make speeches to a mostly empty chamber. Instead, they’ll be admonished to “keep silent, on pain of imprisonment” and submit questions in writing.
They are notorious multitaskers, reading legislation and checking in with political contacts while in the chamber. Instead, they’ll be forbidden from carrying mobile phones or other electronic devices and told to restrict any reading to trial material.
The Senate usually works four days a week, letting members go home for the weekends — or to Iowa and New Hampshire, for the four Democrats running for president. But the trial will likely run every day but Sunday.
Reporters normally have good access to senators as they come and go. For the trial, they must get special passes and in most cases can talk to senators only in velvet-roped pens overseen by U.S. Capitol Police.
Roberts: The framers of the Constitution expected, wrongly, that the vice president would preside over the Senate on a day-to-day basis, so they put the chief justice in charge of impeachment trials. It’s up to Roberts to decide how active of a role to play, but most expect him to stay hands off.
McConnell: The framers also didn’t foresee the rise of political parties, so the majority leader’s role is not formally described. As the leader of 53 GOP senators, he can shape the rules and many procedural decisions in the trial as long as he keeps most Republicans in line.
GOP swing votes: A handful of Republicans can cause trouble for McConnell on those procedural votes. Democrats will be closely watching Murkowski, Romney and Alexander, as well as several running for reelection this year, including Collins and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
On Jan. 15, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed seven House Democrats to serve as impeachment managers – acting as prosecutors during the trial. Under existing Senate rules, the opening statement can be given only by one of the managers; the closing statement, by two of them.
Adam Schiff: The lead manager, Schiff, led the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Ukraine scandal. He is a former federal prosecutor.
Jerrold Nadler: As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Nadler handled the second phase of the House’s efforts, ushering articles of impeachment to the House floor.
Jason Crow: A former litigator and Army veteran, Crow was one of seven Democrats with national security backgrounds who backed an impeachment inquiry in a September op-ed.
Sylvia Garcia: As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Garcia played a role in the impeachment inquiry. She is a former judge in the Houston Municipal System.
Val Demings: A member of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, Demings was involved in both House investigations. She is a former police chief.
Hakeem Jeffries: As chair of the House Democratic caucus, Jeffries is the highest-ranking House Democrat to serve as an impeachment manager. He is a former corporate lawyer.
Zoe Lofgren: Lofgren worked as a staffer on the Judiciary Committee during Watergate, served in the House during Clinton’s impeachment and played a role in the inquiry into Trump.
Trump’s lawyers will make opening and closing statements and rebut the House impeachment managers:
Pat Cipollone: A former partner at a white-shoe law firm and commercial litigator whose clients included Trump’s business, Cipollone became White House counsel in 2018.
Jay Sekulow: Chief counsel to the conservative American Center for Law and Justice and a talk radio host, Sekulow is part of Trump’s personal legal team.
Kenneth Starr: The former independent counsel’s investigation of Clinton led to his impeachment for lying under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Alan Dershowitz: A member of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers, the former Harvard law professor wrote “The Case Against Impeaching Trump” in 2018.
The team also includes Robert Ray, a former Whitewater prosecutor; former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; a Florida lawyer for Trump, Jane Raskin; and two Cipollone deputies, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin.
For now, no witnesses are slated to appear.
In a December letter to McConnell, Schumer sought to hear from four witnesses who didn’t testify before the House: Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff; Robert Blair, a senior Mulvaney adviser; John Bolton, the former national security adviser; and Michael Duffey, associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget.
Bolton said in a statement that he’s “prepared to testify” if subpoenaed, although Trump said he might invoke executive privilege to block him “for the sake of the office.”
Trump has also said he’d like to see Joe Biden, Pelosi and Schiff called as witnesses. Some Republicans have suggested calling Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of the company that Trump wanted Ukraine to announce it was investigating.
Closing arguments from both sides will likely take several days. After that, the Senate will deliberate on the articles of impeachment — another moment that is likely to be in secret.
Once deliberations are over, senators will vote publicly on conviction or acquittal. Under existing Senate rules, they will each stand at their desks and give their verdict, guilty or not guilty, on each count.
Under the Constitution, it takes two-thirds of the Senate — 67 votes — to convict Trump. That almost certainly won’t happen because none of the 53 GOP senators have yet said they think he’s guilty.
If found guilty, Trump would be removed from office. The House impeachment resolution also states that he would be barred from serving in any federal public office again.