The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump begins this week as Senate leaders are closing in on an agreement that would give each side up to 16 hours to present their cases and the potential for a debate and voting on calling witnesses if the House impeachment managers seek it, according to a person familiar with the talks.
The Senate trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are finalizing the trial organizing resolution that will lay out the rules. While the agreement is not set, it would include a four-hour debate on the constitutionality of the trial on Tuesday, followed by a vote on that question.
Beginning Wednesday at noon ET, the impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team would have up to 16 hours per side to make their presentations, the person said, down from the 24 hours each side was given for Trump’s first impeachment trial.
At the request of the managers, there would be an option to hold a debate and vote on calling witnesses. And at the request of Trump’s attorney David Schoen, an observant Jew, there would be no trial proceedings during the Sabbath, after 5 p.m. ET, on Friday through Saturday. Then the trial would reconvene on Sunday afternoon.
When the trial begins, the House impeachment managers are to make their case to the public — and the 100 senators who are jurors for the trial — that Trump is responsible for last month’s deadly riots at the US Capitol. They’ve been diligently preparing a presentation for when the trial gets underway Tuesday, relying on the hours of video footage available from January 6 to try to illustrate in visceral detail how the rioters were incited by Trump and his months of lies that the election was stolen from him.
While convicting Trump with a two-thirds vote is highly unlikely, the case will serve as the first detailed public accounting of how rioters temporarily halted Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s win, violently attacked police officers and actively sought out then-Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as they ransacked the Capitol.
Trump’s legal team plans to argue that Trump did not incite the rioters, and that the trial of a former president is unconstitutional after the House rushed to impeach Trump without giving him the chance to mount any defense.
On Monday, Trump’s legal team accused Democrats of creating “political theater” as they argued in a pretrial brief that the upcoming Senate impeachment trial was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer president.
“This was only ever a selfish attempt by Democratic leadership in the House to prey upon the feelings of horror and confusion that fell upon all Americans across the entire political spectrum upon seeing the destruction at the Capitol on January 6 by a few hundred people,” Trump’s lawyers wrote Monday.
“Instead of acting to heal the nation, or at the very least focusing on prosecuting the lawbreakers who stormed the Capitol, the Speaker of the House and her allies have tried to callously harness the chaos of the moment for their own political gain,” the brief added.
The 75-page legal brief from Trump’s attorneys expands upon their initial response to the House’s impeachment last week, in which they argued that the trial was unconstitutional, that Trump didn’t incite the rioters and that his speech spreading false conspiracies about widespread election fraud is protected by the First Amendment.
The House managers will file a response to Trump’s initial filing by 12 p.m. ET, giving them an opportunity to push back on the claims that both Trump and most Senate Republicans are making that the trial itself is unconstitutional.
The parameters of the trial — which will be the first time in US history a former president is tried — still have not been set. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are negotiating the organizing resolution, which will dictate how long each side will have to make their arguments and how witnesses could be considered. The Senate will vote on the resolution before the trial’s arguments get underway, and both Democrats and Republicans are hopeful it will have bipartisan support.
All sides expect a shorter trial than Trump’s three-week impeachment trial in 2020, but the exact length of time for arguments is still undecided.
‘I think it’s very unlikely’
Even Republican senators open to voting to convict Trump say they recognize the votes aren’t there for a guilty verdict, which would require 17 Republican senators to join every Democrat to vote for conviction. Last month, 45 of the Senate’s 50 Republicans voted in favor of a procedural motion to dismiss the trial on constitutional grounds.
“I think it’s very unlikely, right?” Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “I mean, you did have 45 Republican senators vote to suggest that they didn’t think it was appropriate to conduct a trial. So, you can infer how likely it is that those folks will vote to convict. I disagreed with their assessment. I think it is constitutional.”
Toomey is one of the Republican senators that Democrats hope to convince to vote to convict Trump at the conclusion of the trial, after 10 House Republicans voted in favor of impeachment last month.
The other key Republican senators voted with Toomey and the Democrats that the trial was constitutional: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Democrats’ case will rely on video of the rioters themselves on January 6 as well as their comments, laid out in subsequent indictments, of how they were inspired by Trump to attack the Capitol and attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
Their case will also focus on Trump’s comments, both in the months leading up to the riots where he spread baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud, and on January 6 when he spoke before his followers marched to the Capitol.
‘This is all about a political theater’
In their legal filing last week, Trump’s team argued that his speech was protected by the First Amendment, and he did not incite the rioters who attacked the Capitol. But perhaps the bigger argument his lawyers plan to make — and the one that Senate Republicans are likely point to in an acquittal vote — is that the trial of a former official is not constitutional.
“This is all about a political theater,” former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo on Sunday. “It’s really about Democrats trying to once again make a political point. Listen, this whole impeachment is designed to remove someone from office. President Trump is a private citizen at this point.”
Still, there have been legal scholars on both sides of the aisle who say that a trial is constitutional, as Trump was impeached by the House while he was still president and the Constitution gives the Senate the power to bar someone from holding future public office, in addition to removing officials from office.
Republican lawyer Charles Cooper, who represented former Trump national security adviser John Bolton during Trump’s first impeachment when Bolton resisted testifying, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Sunday that the Constitution does not bar the Senate from trying a former president.
“The senators who supported Mr. Paul’s motion should reconsider their view and judge the former president’s misconduct on the merits,” Cooper wrote.
Unlike Trump’s first impeachment, which was a complicated story about an effort for Ukraine to investigate Biden and the halting of US security aid, the impeachment managers are telling a story that senators know all too well after they were forced to flee the Senate after the rioters overran Capitol Police and closed in on the chamber.
It’s why the managers may not call any outside witnesses in the trial, unlike the first trial when the push for testimony was a central focus. The House managers last week sought testimony directly from Trump, but his lawyers quickly rejected that proposal, and Democrats are unlikely to seek a subpoena.
“We have the unusual circumstance where on the very first day of the trial, when those managers walk on the floor of the Senate, there will already be over 100 witnesses present, and those will be the House and Senate members,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager during Trump’s first impeachment, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Whether you need additional witnesses will be a strategic call for the House managers.”
Debate over witnesses looms over start of trial
The witness question has not yet been decided. But the desire for witnesses who might be able to corroborate Trump’s thinking and actions while the riots were unfolding is running into many Senate Democrats’ wishes for a quick trial so they can move onto passing Biden’s Covid-19 relief package.
Still, some Senate Democrats say they don’t want to hamstring the managers for the sake of speed. Because Democrats control the Senate, they have the votes to allow for witnesses without GOP support, unlike in the 2020 trial.
“I think we should be consistent,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday” about Senate Democrats’ push in the first trial to subpoena witnesses.
“This time, we saw what happened in real time,” Murphy added. “President Trump sent that angry mob to the Capitol on live TV, so it’s not as important that you have witnesses, but if the House managers want witnesses, we should allow them to be able to put them on.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Monday.