Arguments are under way in Washington in the historic second impeachment trial of former U.S. President Donald Trump, with lawmakers set to decide whether it is legal under the Constitution to try him after he has already left office.
Nine Democratic lawmakers from the House of Representatives, acting as prosecutors against the former U.S. leader, are arguing at Trump’s trial before the 100-member Senate that he should be held accountable for inciting the storming of the Capitol on January 6. They say he urged hundreds of supporters to confront lawmakers as they were certifying that Democrat Joe Biden had defeated him in last November’s election.
Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland told the Senate that if Trump is not held accountable, it “would create a brand-new January exception” where future presidents would not face consequences for any wrongdoing during their final month in office through impeachment and trial in the Senate.
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The Democrats showed the Senate a video of the chaos that unfolded in the Capitol building, with rampaging protesters storming past authorities and lawmakers scrambling to avoid the violence.
Trump’s lawyers are expected to respond that the trial is unconstitutional because the Constitution says impeachment is a tool to remove officials from office if they are found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” That is impossible in Trump’s case, they contend, because Trump’s four-year term ended when Biden was inaugurated on January 20.
The Senate, however, conducted an 1876 impeachment trial of a Cabinet secretary who resigned moments before he was impeached. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives while still in office.
Up to four hours of arguments are scheduled on the constitutional issue, but Trump’s legal effort to end the trial before it starts in earnest is likely to fail.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a staunch Trump supporter, attempted last month to block the trial on the same grounds, but five Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting 55-45 to proceed with the trial.
However it requires a two-thirds majority for conviction, meaning at least 12 of those Republican senators would have to reverse their votes for the prosecution to prevail. The 10-seat Senate is currently evenly divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
Paul says there is a “zero chance of conviction.” If Trump is convicted, the Senate, on a simple majority vote, could bar him from ever holding federal office again.
The protest January 6 turned into mayhem, as about 800 Trump supporters rampaged past authorities into the Capitol, smashed doors and windows, ransacked some congressional offices and scuffled with police. Five people were killed, including a Capitol Police officer and a rioter shot by an officer.
The 100 senators deciding the impeachment case against the single-term president are in a unique position: Many of them were witnesses themselves to the chaos as they fled the Senate chamber.
Trump, the only U.S. president to be twice impeached, was acquitted a year ago when he was accused of soliciting the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt against Biden ahead of last November’s election.
A week after the storming of the Capitol, the House voted 232-197, with 10 Republicans joining all 222 Democrats, to accuse Trump of “incitement of insurrection.” Then, on January 20, Biden was inaugurated as the country’s 46th president and Trump, no longer in power, flew for the last time on Air Force One to his Atlantic coastline mansion in Florida, where he has stayed since.
Trump has declined a request from Democrats to testify in his defense at his impeachment trial and is not expected to attend. The trial could last a week or longer.
The nine Democratic House impeachment managers bringing the case against Trump – several of them former prosecutors – say that Trump, by urging his supporters to contest his election defeat at the Capitol, was "singularly responsible" for the riot that ensued.
Trump urged supporters to come to Washington on January 6, saying it would be “wild.” At a rally near the White House shortly before his supporters walked 16 blocks to the Capitol, Trump continued his weeks-long barrage of unfounded claims that election fraud had cost him another four-year term.
At one time in speaking for more than an hour, Trump told his supporters “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” by marching to the Capitol.
But he also exhorted them, saying, “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about. To use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with, we will stop the steal.”
“And we fight,” he said. “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Ahead of the trial, the House impeachment managers said in a legal brief, "President Trump's responsibility for the events of January 6 is unmistakable" and that the former president's "conduct must be declared unacceptable in the clearest and most unequivocal terms," even though he is no longer in office.
Assuming the Senate votes to go ahead with the trial after debating its constitutionality, House managers will begin to present their case on Wednesday, likely showing some of the hours of videos recording the mayhem.
The president’s lawyers will then respond with his defense. According to an agreement announced Monday by congressional leaders, each side will have 16 hours over two days to present its arguments.
Later in the week, the Senate will have an opportunity to debate whether to call witnesses. The House managers could call some of the rioters to testify they were responding to Trump's call for them on to confront lawmakers certifying Biden’s victory.
Trump’s lawyers have mounted a vigorous defense and contend that the former president bears no responsibility for what occurred last month.
In a brief filed Monday, they said the case against him amounts to "political theater" brought by anti-Trump Democrats. Trump’s lawyers suggested that he was simply exercising his constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech when he disputed the election results and argued that he explicitly encouraged his supporters to engage in a peaceful protest.
"Instead, 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 Jan. 6 by a few hundred people," the lawyers wrote.
"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 (Nancy Pelosi) and her allies have tried to callously harness the chaos of the moment for their own political gain.”
In response, the House Democrats prosecuting Trump said, “We live in a nation governed by the rule of law, not mob violence incited by presidents who cannot accept their own electoral defeat.”
“The evidence of President Trump’s conduct is overwhelming,” the managers wrote. “He has no valid excuse or defense for his actions. And his efforts to escape accountability are entirely unavailing. As charged in the Article of Impeachment, President Trump violated his Oath of Office and betrayed the American people.”