Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial has opened in the Senate, with Democrats arguing that the former president should be convicted for inciting a violent mob of his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Tuesday is the first day of arguments in the trial, which is expected to last around a week or more. Senators, sitting at their desks and in other locations around the chamber, will listen to arguments from Trump’s lawyers that the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer president. Democrats will dispute that claim, pointing to legal experts and historical precedent.
Each side has two hours to make its case on Tuesday, after which the Senate is expected to vote and reject the GOP efforts to dismiss the trial.
Trump’s lawyers insist that he is not guilty on the sole charge of “incitement of insurrection,” his fiery words just a figure of speech, even as he encouraged a rally crowd to “fight like hell” for his presidency. The Capitol siege on Jan. 6 stunned the world as rioters stormed the building to try to stop the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Five people died.
Trump is the first president to be twice impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours while in office. A presidential impeachment trial has been conducted only three times before, leading to acquittals for Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and then Trump last year.
Front Burner21:38Trump’s impeachment: Will history repeat itself?
While acquittal is likely, the trial will test the nation’s attitude toward his brand of presidential power, the Democrats’ resolve in pursuing him, and the loyalty of Trump’s Republican allies defending him.
“In trying to make sense of a second Trump trial, the public should keep in mind that Donald Trump was the first president ever to refuse to accept his defeat,” said Timothy Naftali, a clinical associate professor at New York University and an expert on Richard Nixon’s impeachment saga, which ended with Nixon’s resignation rather than his impeachment.
“This trial is one way of having that difficult national conversation about the difference between dissent and insurrection,” Naftali said.
Constitutional arguments up first
In filings, lawyers for the former president lobbed a wide-ranging attack against the House case, dismissing the trial as “political theatre” on the same Senate floor invaded by the mob.
Trump’s defenders are preparing to challenge both the constitutionality of the trial and any suggestion that he was to blame for the insurrection. They suggest that Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he encouraged his supporters to protest at the Capitol, and they argue the Senate is not entitled to try Trump now that he has left office.
WATCH | Amherst College law professor Lawrence Douglas on Trump’s 2nd trial:
House impeachment managers, in their own filings, asserted that Trump had “betrayed the American people” and there is no valid excuse or defence.
“His incitement of insurrection against the United States government — which disrupted the peaceful transfer of power — is the most grievous constitutional crime ever committed by a president,” the Democrats said.
With senators gathered as the court of impeachment, the trial will begin Tuesday with a debate and vote on whether it’s constitutionally permissible to prosecute the former president, an argument that could resonate with Republicans keen on voting to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behaviour. Democrats would likely counter that Trump was impeached while he was president, not a private citizen, with then-majority leader Mitch McConnell deciding not to reconvene the Senate to begin a trial.
Under an agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell, the opening arguments would begin at noon Wednesday, with up to 16 hours per side for presentations.
WATCH | Trump’s First Amendment rights could rest on intent:
Typically senators sit at their desks for such occasions, but the COVID-19 crisis has upended even this tradition. Instead, senators will be allowed to spread out, in the “marble room” just off the Senate floor, where proceedings will be shown on TV, and in the public galleries above the chamber, to accommodate social distancing, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Trump’s second impeachment trial is expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated affair of a year ago. In that case, Trump was charged with having privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then a Democratic rival for the presidency.
This time, Trump’s “stop the steal” rally rhetoric and the storming of the Capitol played out for the world to see, as well the preceding two months in which he claimed without merit on Twitter and in appearances that he was legitimate winner of the election.
The Current20:13What Donald Trump’s impeachment trial means for U.S. political institutions
The Democratic-led House impeached the president swiftly, one week after the most violent attack on Congress in more than 200 years. Five people died on that day, including a woman shot by police inside the building and a police officer who died the next day of his injuries.
Senators were sworn in as jurors late last month Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky forced a vote to set aside the trial as unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office, with 45 Republican votes in favour of Paul’s measure.
Only five Republicans joined with Democrats to reject Paul’s motion: Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
A conviction in a Senate trial requires two-thirds — or 67 senators — to vote in favour.