Mon, October 25, 2021

in-focus

Senate ends standoff, agrees to start Trump's impeachment trial on Feb. 9


WASHINGTON - The impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump will begin Feb. 9 under a deal reached Friday by top Senate leaders - delaying by two weeks the high-stakes proceedings over whether Trump incited the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The agreement was made by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., following a standoff over the timing of the trial, which could permanently bar Trump from holding public office.

The House on Jan. 13 passed a sole impeachment article, alleging "incitement of insurrection." House leaders could have forced the Senate to begin the trial immediately by transmitting the papers across the Capitol. But a delay serves the former and current presidents: Trump has struggled to assemble a legal team and muster a defense, and President Biden needs the Senate to confirm most of his Cabinet appointees.

McConnell pushed Thursday for a three-week delay, but Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Friday morning announced their intention to deliver the impeachment papers Monday - setting up a trial as soon as Tuesday. Later in the day, Biden publicly called for a delay, saying, "the more time we have to get up and running to meet these crises, the better."

Announcing the two-week timetable Friday, Schumer said the wait would allow the Senate to make further progress on Biden's nominations and his $2 trillion pandemic relief proposal - the centerpiece of his early legislative agenda - before shifting to Trump.

"We all want to put this awful chapter in our nation's history behind us, but healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability, and that is what this trial will provide," he said.

Doug Andres, a spokesman for McConnell, called the agreement "a win for due process and fairness."

"Republicans set out to ensure the Senate's next steps will respect former president Trump's rights and due process, the institution of the Senate, and the office of the presidency," he said. "That goal has been achieved."

Had no accord been reached, the trial would have started Tuesday and run uninterrupted by other Senate business until the Senate rendered its verdict. The agreement does not resolve another brewing conflict between Schumer and McConnell: over how the Senate will handle a 50-50 partisan split, with Vice President Harris breaking ties in Democrats' favor.

The trial agreement came as some rank-and-file Democrats expressed alarm at the prospect of putting the new president's priorities on hold to focus the nation's attention on Trump.

"I want to focus as much attention right now on the Biden agenda as possible and minimize the attention on anything other than the Biden agenda," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Kaine is part of a small group of Democrats pushing the idea of passing a resolution stating that Trump violated the 14th Amendment - which forbids federal officials from ever holding office if they "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the government - and in that manner ban him from running again for president.

The debate over the trial's timing played out through the day Friday. Announcing the plan to transmit the single article to the Senate on Monday, Pelosi said in a morning statement that Trump "will have had the same amount of time to prepare for trial as our managers."

Around the same time on the Senate floor, Schumer said he and McConnell continued to discuss the "timing and duration" of the trial.

"But make no mistake, a trial will be held in the United States Senate, and there will be a vote on whether to convict the president," he said, adding: "It will be a full trial; it will be a fair trial."

McConnell and other Republican senators, meanwhile, publicly warned that rushing into the trial after the rapid House impeachment vote - which took place one week after the Capitol riot, with no evidentiary hearings or opportunity for Trump to mount a defense - would taint the process.

"Senate Republicans strongly believe we need a full and fair process where the former president can mount a defense and the Senate can properly consider the factual, legal and constitutional questions at stake," McConnell said Friday.

Democrats could not ignore the warning, since McConnell is among a small group of Senate Republicans who have signaled deep unease with Trump's conduct surrounding the Jan. 6 riot. Many Democrats doubt McConnell will ultimately vote to convict Trump, despite his remarks this week that the mob was "provoked by the president and other powerful people," but they understand that they must have his support if the Senate is ultimately going to bar Trump from future office.

Another potential Republican vote for conviction, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also expressed reservations Friday about a rushed trial. "The process has to be fair," she said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a key Trump ally, told reporters it would be "ridiculous" for Democrats not to agree to at least some delay, noting that Trump retained the first member of his defense team - South Carolina lawyer Karl S. "Butch" Bowers Jr. - only on Thursday.

"If the trial starts right away, that would be an affront to everything every American claims to hold near and dear," Graham said. "You get a chance to defend yourself."

In the nine days since the House impeached Trump, Democrats - including Biden - had floated the possibility that the Senate could come to an agreement to both conduct Trump's trial and proceed with regular business simultaneously, but Republicans made clear they were not interested in a split schedule.

"Once we take the trial up, we have to do the trial," Graham said. "If you want to impeach the president, we're going to do it like we've always done it. We're not going to split the day. . . . That's the business of the Senate once we go into it."

Although senators of both parties have suggested this trial could be shorter than Trump's first one, which wrapped up in February 2020 after 21 days, there are no guarantees of such brevity. The House managers or Trump's lawyers, for instance, could seek to call witnesses and present evidence, extending the proceedings indefinitely.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the No. 3 GOP leader, said that once the trial begins, "the opportunity for President Biden to get a Cabinet in place is done until impeachment is done."

"This basically stops President Biden in his tracks at a time when a number of Republicans believe that President Biden ought to be able to put a Cabinet in place," Barrasso also said.

The Senate confirmed Avril Haines as director of national intelligence on Wednesday and confirmed retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary on Friday.

As Senate leaders sparred over the timing and structure of the trial, more Senate Republicans signaled Friday that they are uncomfortable with holding a trial for an ex-president.

Under the Constitution, Trump could suffer "disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States," and the House impeachment article seeks to do that.

Graham and others have urged colleagues to reject the notion that a president can be tried after leaving office, leaving moot the implications of his conduct - which includes spreading baseless claims that Biden lost the November election, urging his vice president to reject duly cast electoral college votes, summoning his supporters to rally in Washington as Congress finalized Biden's win and urging them that day to march to the Capitol.

Schumer sought to rebut that argument Friday on the Senate floor. "It makes no sense whatsoever that a president or any official could commit a heinous crime against our country, and then be permitted to resign, so as to avoid accountability and a vote to disbar them from future office," he said.

Other GOP senators in recent days have aired misgivings about the process, signaling that they are disinclined to support a conviction - which will require 17 Republicans to join the expected 50 Democrats and independents who caucus with Democrats.

"We kind of have an inkling of what the outcome is going to be," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "I mean, Democrats this time didn't even bother to go through the motions of getting sworn testimony and having hearings in the House. This is not a serious effort. It is a serious issue, but it's not a serious effort to comply with the requirements of due process of the Constitution when it comes to impeachment."

Published : January 23, 2021

By : The Washington Post, Mike DeBonis