Senate Democrats signal hope for bipartisan Trump impeachment trial
Despite the unprecedented speed with which the House acted Wednesday — impeaching the president one week after the deadly storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has rebuffed Democratic calls for the chamber to reconvene before Tuesday, its scheduled date and one day before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Nonetheless, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) signaled Thursday that Democrats are far from taking a go-it-alone approach.
“We are working with Republicans to try to find a path forward,” said the spokesman, Justin Goodman.
McConnell’s office declined to comment.
A growing number of Republican senators, including McConnell, have signaled in recent days that they are open to convicting Trump on the charge of “incitement of insurrection.” A two-thirds vote is necessary for Trump’s conviction, meaning that 17 of the 50 Republicans in the incoming Senate would need to join the 50 members who caucus with the Democrats.
One of those Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said Thursday that Trump’s words on the day of the riot “incited violence,” which “briefly interfered with the government’s ability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.”
“Such unlawful actions cannot go without consequence and the House has responded swiftly, and I believe, appropriately, with impeachment,” she said.
One of the impeachment managers, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), on Thursday declined to detail Democrats’ plans for the upcoming trial, including which witnesses they might call.
“I’m a former prosecutor, and the first thing I want to say is: We don’t discuss trial strategy in public,” Lieu, who is also a co-author of the article of impeachment, said Thursday on MSNBC.
Some Senate Democrats suggested that the proceedings could be much shorter than last year’s trial, which lasted 21 days and ended with Trump’s acquittal.
“This is a very simple allegation,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said on MSNBC. “It is incitement to insurrection. We could conduct a trial in a very short amount of time because the evidence that’s needed is pretty direct.”
The article of impeachment against Trump provides something of an outline for the path Democrats may take.
It notes that, in the months after the election, Trump “repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the Presidential election results were the product of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people or certified by State or Federal officials.”
Among the examples mentioned is the Jan. 2 phone call in which Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win in the state.
The article also states that Trump “willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged — and foreseeably resulted in — lawless action at the Capitol,” such as his declaration at the rally preceding the riot that: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
One big difference from last year’s impeachment trial: Many of the lawyers who defended the president then are unwilling to do so this time.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who was central to the president’s defense last year, told other staffers to make sure word got out that he was not involved in defending Trump this time, according to one aide. Other lawyers in Trump’s circle, including Jay Sekulow, Pam Bondi, Pat Philbin and Marc Kasowitz, have also said they will not be part of the effort, according to Bloomberg News, which cited people familiar with the matter.
Another difference is that the president can no longer count on McConnell’s support as a given.
Ahead of last year’s trial, the Kentucky Republican said there was “zero chance” the president would be removed from office, declared that he was “not an impartial juror” and promised “total coordination” with Trump’s defense team.
But this time, McConnell has struck a dramatically different tone, saying in a message to colleagues Wednesday that he has “not made a final decision” on how he will vote and plans to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented.
Several other Senate Republicans have also notably left the door open to voting to convict Trump in the upcoming trial. They include Murkowski and Sens. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.), as well as Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), who was the lone Republican to join Democrats in voting to convict Trump last year.
Shelby, who has typically been a staunch defender of the president, said Thursday that he was withholding judgment.
“I believe we need to wait and hear the evidence,” Shelby said in a statement. “If there is a trial, which would be my third as a sitting Senator, I would sit as a juror. And as a juror, I would carefully consider the evidence presented.”
Murkowski and her fellow Alaskan, Sullivan, pledged to listen to the arguments of both sides and refrain from rushing to judgment.
“The charges being brought against President Trump are serious and will be given serious consideration, including examining the historical and legal precedents and the long-term impacts a conviction under these circumstances could have on our Republic,” Sullivan said in a statement after Wednesday’s House vote.
If Trump is convicted, a second vote would determine whether he would be barred from ever seeking federal office again; a simple majority would be required for passage.
Hanging over the Senate debate and trial are the threats of violence that many lawmakers say they have received leading up to and in the wake of last week’s riot.
Those threats have long been aimed at Democrats who have opposed Trump’s efforts to overturn Biden’s win. But this week, some Republicans say they have been targeted as well.
Rep. Peter Meijer (Mich.), one of the 10 House Republicans who voted Wednesday to impeach Trump, said on MSNBC that he and some of his colleagues are taking steps to protect themselves and their family members, including looking into buying body armor and hiring armed escorts.
“When it comes to my family’s safety, that’s something that we’ve been planning for, preparing for, taking appropriate measures,” said Meijer, who in November won election to the seat previously held by Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party in 2019. “I have colleagues who are now traveling with armed escorts, out of the fear for their safety. Many of us are altering our routines, working to get body armor, which is a reimbursable purchase that we can make.”
“It’s sad that we have to get to that point,” he added. “But, you know, our expectation is that someone may try to kill us.”
Meijer emphasized, however, that threats of violence did not factor into his decision to impeach Trump.
“I think you have to set that aside,” he said. “I don’t believe in giving an assassin’s veto, an insurrectionist’s veto, a heckler’s veto. If we let that guide decisions, then you’re cowering to the mob. I mean, that’s the definition of terrorism — is trying to achieve a political end using violence.”