Sat, November 27, 2021

in-focus

Senate votes to pursue Trump impeachment trial after declaring the proceedings constitutional


WASHINGTON - The Senate voted along mostly partisan lines Tuesday to pursue Donald Trump's second impeachment trial, after hours of arguments and the airing of a gripping documentary of the deadly Capitol riot that followed Trump's inflammatory rally on Jan. 6.

Aided by the graphic 13-minute video that spliced violent images of the Capitol siege with Trump's rhetoric, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and other impeachment managers delivered an impassioned account of the physical and emotional trauma to lawmakers, police, staffers and local residents. They said there was no "January exception" in the Constitution - meaning that a president couldn't escape accountability through impeachment just because he had left office before the trial.

"If that's not an impeachable offense, then there is no such thing," Raskin said of Trump's behavior.

Trump's lawyers countered that the trial - the first proceeding of its kind for an ex-president - would be unconstitutional because Trump was no longer in office, even if he was impeached by the House before leaving. One of the attorneys acknowledged that the former president lost the election, undercutting one baseless claim that Trump has spread since Nov. 3.

The Senate swiftly voted 56 to 44 against Trump. The proceedings will resume at noon Wednesday.

The historic trial opens just one month after the senators gathered in the same chamber to certify the results of the electoral college that gave President Joe Biden his win, only to be interrupted as a frightening mob overtook the Capitol in an unprecedented siege after Trump implored his supporters at a rally to fight on his behalf.

The insurrectionists broke through metal barricades, smashed windows and assaulted police officers to gain access to the citadel of U.S. democracy - prompting Vice President Mike Pence to be quickly ushered into safety and hundreds of lawmakers and staffers to take cover from rampaging rioters. At least five people died, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who was memorialized under the Rotunda last week.

Reminders of the riot persist, with tall steel fencing and barbed wire encircling the once-open Capitol grounds, now patrolled by National Guard troops.

The House impeachment managers leaned on legal rulings, images and emotion, particularly Raskin's recounting of his return to the chamber on Jan. 6 for the first time after burying his son. The former president's defense lawyers addressed the crux of Tuesday's debate - the constitutionality of the proceedings - only late in their presentation.

In a distinct appeal to a Republican Party that has long prided itself on its support of law enforcement, Raskin detailed the injuries sustained by 140 Capitol Police officers that day, such as brain damage, gouged eyes, heart attacks and mental trauma. At least two have died by suicide.

"Senators, this cannot be our future. This cannot be the future of America," Raskin said. "We cannot have presidents inciting and mobilizing mob violence against our government and our institutions because they refuse to accept the will of the people under the Constitution of the United States."

This photo from Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 shows Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., making edits to his speech during a practice session regarding for the House managers overseeing the second impeachment of President Donald Trump. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

The argument failed to sway 44 of the chamber's 50 Republicans, with most favoring dismissing the case against Trump outright - a tally demonstrating the unlikelihood that 17 GOP senators will choose to join Democrats to convict the former president.

That vote was similar to one taken by the Senate last month, in which only five Republicans - Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ben Sasse of Nebraska - voted that an impeachment trial of a former president was constitutional. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., joined them Tuesday in breaking with their party to allow the trial to proceed.

Some GOP senators on Tuesday were compelled by legal arguments from the Democratic impeachment managers, as they invoked conservative legal luminaries such as former 10th Circuit Judge Michael McConnell and attorney Charles Cooper, who have argued in favor of the trial's constitutionality.

"Anyone that listened to those arguments would recognize that the House managers are focused, organized, they relied both upon precedent, the Constitution and legal scholars. They made a compelling argument," said Cassidy, who took diligent notes throughout the day.

In contrast, Cassidy said, Trump's team was "disorganized."

"They did everything they could but to talk about the question at hand. And when they talked about it, they kind of glided over it, almost as if they were embarrassed of their arguments," he said.

Raskin said Congress's impeachment powers were precisely structured to hold accountable leaders such as Trump, who Raskin said "may not know a lot about the framers, but they certainly knew a lot about him."

In an extraordinarily raw accounting of what he experienced, Raskin also shared that his daughter and son-in-law had come with him to Capitol Hill that day, wanting to remain close in their grief following the death by suicide of Raskin's son, Tommy, days earlier. The lawmaker's voice broke after he relayed to senators that his daughter, Tabitha, told him following the insurrection that she never wanted to come to the Capitol again.

"It was very powerful and heart-wrenching testimony," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "And I think he posed the question that's going to hang over this trial at the end, which is whether the verdict will show our children that our democracy is safe and the Capitol is secure."

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., another House impeachment manager, leaned heavily on historical precedents, walking senators through the impeachments of Sen. William Blount in 1797 and Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876, both of which occurred after the men were no longer in office.

That was ample evidence that Trump can be convicted even after leaving office, Neguse said.

"Honestly, it's hard to imagine a clearer example of how a president could abuse his office: inciting violence against a coequal branch while seeking to remain in power after losing an election," Neguse said. "Presidents can't inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened. And yet that is the rule that President Trump asks you to adopt."

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., goes through his speech with Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and chief impeachment counsel Barry Berke during preparations on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a third impeachment manager, directly cited a tweet Trump sent hours after the mob stormed the Capitol, saying the social media missive demonstrated precisely "how President Trump himself felt" even while the nation was in horror. In it, Trump had lamented that his "sacred landslide election victory" had been "stripped away" and embraced his followers as "great patriots."

"The president of the United States sided with the insurrectionists. He celebrated their cause. He validated their attack," Cicilline said

When Trump's defense took over, attorney Bruce Castor spoke first, delivering a 48-minute address in which he repeatedly flattered senators, calling them "extraordinary." He admitted that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election by noting that "he was removed by the voters," suggesting he had been punished enough.

Castor argued that Trump's remarks Jan. 6 were simply a matter of "free and robust political speech" rather than incitement of insurrection, "and if people go and commit lawless acts as a result of their beliefs and they cross the line, they should be locked up."

A person familiar with the Trump legal strategy who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to speak publicly said Castor's speech was part of the defense team's efforts to neutralize the emotional arguments made by the House impeachment managers, although it was unclear whether he succeeded.

"I thought I knew where it was going, and I really didn't know where it was going," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump's closest allies.

The second Trump lawyer, David Schoen, immediately took a confrontational and fiery tone at the rostrum, accusing Democrats of instigating a politically motivated impeachment proceeding. He also warned that Democrats were trying to disenfranchise the millions of voters who supported Trump.

He accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of intentionally holding on to the impeachment article so a trial couldn't occur until Trump was out of office - although it was Republican Mitch McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, who decided against a prompt trial.

The former president's team also played video clips of Democratic lawmakers - including Raskin, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas - calling for Trump's impeachment for various perceived sins since the start of his presidency in 2017.

"This is about our Constitution and abusing the impeachment power for political gain," Schoen said. "They don't want unity, and they know this so-called trial will tear this country in half."

Trump's second impeachment trial has undergone adjustments compared to his first because of the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the daily operations of the Senate.

Aides familiar with the preparations said senators are allowed to watch the proceedings from the public galleries above the floor or in the Marble Room, a senators-only space behind the chamber, to allow for social distancing. Tables set up in the well of the Senate for the managers and Trump lawyers held bottles of hand sanitizer and at least one bottle of Clorox wipes.

Still, senators - nearly all masked, an exception being Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. - stayed at their desks to listen to the four hours of arguments from the impeachment managers and Trump's defense attorneys.

As the Democratic video played, nearly every senator was glued to the screens in the Senate chamber - although Paul doodled on a paper pad in his lap and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also focused most of his attention on papers in front of him.

Some focused intently, others stared blankly, and some frowned. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, appeared to redden at one point.

The impeachment trial could continue every day through the Presidents' Day weekend under the terms of a resolution adopted shortly after the Senate convened Tuesday afternoon.

How long the trial runs will depend on several factors, including whether House impeachment managers decide to call witnesses to testify about Trump's behavior. Senior aides to the managers' team declined to comment Tuesday on the possibility of witnesses, although there was a palpable lack of appetite among even the most ardent Democratic proponents of impeachment to do so.

"We don't want to rush justice," said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, who watched the Senate proceedings from the chamber on Tuesday. "But by the same token, we don't want to unnecessarily delay."

Raskin, as he left the Senate on Tuesday evening, said he was heartened to win over even one more Republican. "We were told that it would be completely partisan and locked from the last vote, and it wasn't, so people's minds are open," he said.

Biden, meantime, remained intentionally disengaged from the proceedings and instead focused on his agenda, including coronavirus relief.

Asked Tuesday whether he was going to watch the trial, Biden replied: "I am not."

"Look, I told you before: I have a job. . . . The Senate has their job; they're about to begin it," he said. "I'm sure they're going to conduct themselves well. And that's all I'm going to have to say about impeachment."

Published : February 10, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian, Tom Hamburger