US Senate decides to proceed With Donald Trump's impeachment trial after 56-44 vote

Even though Trump can no longer be removed from office, conviction would stand as a statement of repudiation for history and permit senators to bar him from running for federal office again

The New York Times February 10, 2021 07:36:30 IST
US Senate decides to proceed With Donald Trump's impeachment trial after 56-44 vote

House impeachment managers watch the first day of the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump on TV at the Capitol on Tuesday. By Erin Schaff © 2021 The New York Times

The Senate voted on Tuesday to proceed with the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, rejecting his defence team’s claim that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute a president after leaving office. But the final tally signalled that his Republican allies could muster enough support to potentially block the two-thirds necessary for conviction.

The 56-44 vote, with six Republicans joining all 50 Democrats, paved the way for the House Democrats trying the case to formally open their arguments on Wednesday afternoon as they seek to prove that Trump incited an insurrection by encouraging supporters who stormed the Capitol last month and disrupted the counting of Electoral College votes.

But the 44 Republicans who agreed with Trump’s claim that a former president cannot be subject to an impeachment trial seemed to all but guarantee that he would have the 34 votes he needs on the final verdict to avoid conviction. To succeed, the House managers would need to persuade at least 11 Republican senators to find Trump guilty in a trial that they have deemed unconstitutional.

The vote came after House managers, arguing to proceed with the trial, presented the Senate with a vivid and graphic sequence of footage of Trump’s backers assaulting the Capitol last month.

The managers wasted no time moving immediately to their most powerful evidence: The explicit visual record of the deadly Capitol siege that threatened the lives of former vice-president Mike Pence and members of both Houses of Congress juxtaposed against Trump’s own words encouraging members of the mob at a rally beforehand.

The scenes of mayhem and violence — punctuated by expletives rarely heard on the floor of the Senate — highlighted the drama of the trial in gut-punching fashion for the senators who lived through the events barely a month ago and now sit as quasi-juror. On the screens they saw enraged extremists storming barricades, beating police officers, setting up a gallows and yelling, “Take the building,” “Fight for Trump” and “Pence is a traitor! Traitor Pence!”

“You ask what a high crime and misdemeanour is under our Constitution,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the leader of the House Democrats prosecuting the case, told the senators after playing the video. “That’s a high crime and misdemeanour. If that’s not an impeachable offence, then there’s no such thing.”

Trump’s lawyers responded by arguing that his words at the rally on 6 January constituted free speech akin to typical political language and hardly incited the violence. They characterised the impeachment as yet another partisan attack driven by animus that will set a precedent for political retribution as power changes with each election.

“The political pendulum will shift one day,” Bruce Castor, the lawyer leading off for the former president, told the Senate. “This chamber and the chamber across the way will change one day, and partisan impeachments will become commonplace.”

The second trial of Trump opened in the crime scene itself, the same chamber occupied on 6 January by the mob that forced senators to evacuate in the middle of counting the Electoral College votes ratifying President Joe Biden’s victory.

Never before has a president been tried by the Senate twice, much less after his term has expired, but Trump’s accusers argue that his actions in his final days in power were so egregious and threatening to democracy that he must be held accountable.

“What you experienced that day, what we experienced that day, what our country experienced that day, is the framers’ worst nightmare come to life,” Representative Joe Neguse, D-Colorado, another impeachment manager, told the senators. “Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened.”

Even though Trump can no longer be removed from office, conviction would stand as a statement of repudiation for history and permit the senators to bar him from running for federal office again.

The managers maintained that there must be no “January exception” for presidents to escape repercussions through impeachment on their way out of office and cited a series of writings by the nation’s framers as well as contemporary conservative scholars.

Trump’s lawyers condemned the violence but rejected the suggestion that the former president was responsible for it. They maintained that the Constitution did not permit an impeachment trial of a former president because it was meant to lead to removal, and Trump is no longer in office. If he committed a crime, they said, he could be prosecuted criminally.

“This idea of a January amnesty is nonsense,” Castor said. “There is no opportunity where the President of the United States can run rampant in January at the end of his term and just go away scot-free. The Department of Justice does know what to do with such people.”

Peter Baker c.2021 The New York Times Company

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