The Senate is set to kick off Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, an excruciating procedure which, according to senators is expected to be extremely partisan and to extend after the State of the Union address at the beginning of February, The Hill reports.
Once Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sends the two articles of impeachment to the upper chamber, the Senate will summon Chief Justice John Roberts to swear senators in as jurors before the end of the week.
“We’ll be able to … in all likelihood go through some preliminary steps here this week, which could well include the chief justice coming over and swearing in members of the Senate and some other kind of housekeeping measures,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Tuesday afternoon.
The GOP leader said this “would set us up to begin the actual trial next Tuesday.”
The Senate will not start debating a resolution to set up time for the opening arguments of the House prosecutors and the President’s defense team until Tuesday. McConnell indicated he will not reveal the details of the organizing resolution until next week.
It is expected to give House impeachment managers up to 24 hours to argue their case and Trump’s lawyers 24 hours to respond, mirroring the resolution that was used to begin phase one of the 1999 Clinton trial.
The organizing resolution that all 53 GOP senators back, McConnell said, will be “very, very similar” to the 1999 precedent, which also gave senators 16 hours to ask questions after which the Senate considered the question of calling for additional witnesses and evidence.
The divisive question of witnesses will not be considered until after opening arguments and the senators’ question time.
At that point, a majority of senators will decide whether they will hear from senior officials who did not participate in the House inquiry, such as former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, or subpoena key documents.
McConnell said the first steps “would set up the arguments by the parties, the prosecutors and the defense, and then the written question period, and after that the more contentious issue of witnesses would be addressed.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to force Republicans to vote on the question of witnesses when colleagues debate the initial organizing resolution, but GOP leaders predict his motion will be tabled.
“Do Senate Republicans want to break the lengthy, historical precedent that said witnesses should be at the impeachment trial, by conducting the first impeachment trial of a president in history — in history — since 1789 with no witnesses?” he said on the floor Tuesday.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the GOP leadership, dismissed Schumer’s strategy as a political ploy ahead of this year’s elections.
“This is about Sen. Schumer trying to force incumbent senators into tough votes on witnesses. I think that’s where the game is being played at this point,” he said.
So far, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) is the only GOP senator who says he will likely vote to hear from Bolton and possibly other witnesses.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another swing vote, says she is “curious” to hear from Bolton but on Tuesday said she remains undecided on calling additional witnesses.
“What I want to do is listen to both sides on the opportunity to ask questions and listen to the questions that my colleagues are going to ask and hear those responses and then I want that ability to say whether or not I think I need more, and whether I need to hear more from witnesses,” she said. “Maybe John Bolton, maybe others. Maybe none. Or documentation.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another prominent moderate who is up for reelection, has pushed for GOP leaders to include in the organizing resolution language setting up a debate and vote on witnesses. She, however, won’t say how she’ll vote.
Schumer said these statements indicate there’s growing GOP interest in hearing from new witnesses.
“I think there’s a whole bunch who are really seriously entertaining this,” he said, pointing to polls showing that 64 percent of Republicans are calling for additional witnesses and documents.
The President’s legal team must also be formally notified of the start of the Senate trial and given at least two days to respond, which means opening arguments may not start until later next week.
The timeline could slide, however, depending on what Trump’s lawyers want.
Then-President Andrew Johnson was given 10 days to respond to the start of his impeachment trial in 1868, while Clinton had a week of notice.
Given the delayed start, senators are now wondering if the trial will wrap up by the Presidents Day recess, which is scheduled to start Feb. 15.
If the prosecution, defense and senators use all their allotted time, the first phase of a trial could last six to 10 days, depending on how long senators decide to stay in session each day.
“It’s going to go longer than people think,” warned a veteran Republican senator who was in Congress during Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial.
A lengthy trial would be a blow to sitting senators running for president, most notably Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), since it would keep them off the campaign trail. The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3 with the New Hampshire primary eight days later.
Senators will be required to sit in their seats during the arguments and may not have electronic devices, which could make for some very long days as the impeachment managers and defense lawyers read through their arguments.
In a setback to the House prosecutors, video presentations will not be allowed on the Senate floor, a prospect that some Democrats feared last month when they urged Pelosi to delay the articles of impeachment in hopes of pressing McConnell to negotiate rules for the trial more to their liking.
Some senators initially expressed hope that the trial could be finished by Feb. 4, when Trump is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address, but now that timeline looks unlikely.
How long the process lasts depends on whether senators vote after opening arguments to subpoena key witnesses.
“If people decide they want to call witnesses, it could probably go on for a while,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who said ending the trial by early next month is a “fairly tight deadline” that is unlikely to be met.
McConnell warned on Tuesday that if Democrats insist on hearing from Mulvaney, Bolton or other senior administration officials, Republicans will press to subpoena Hunter Biden on his Ukraine-related dealings.
“We’ll be dealing with the witness issue at the appropriate time into the trial, and I think it’s certainly appropriate to point out that both sides would want to call witnesses that they wanted to hear from,” McConnell said Tuesday when asked about GOP colleagues who want former Vice President Joe Biden’s son to testify.
Some GOP lawmakers have also called for the anonymous whistleblower, whose complaint triggered the impeachment proceedings, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who led the House inquiry, to testify at the Senate trial.
“When you get to that issue, I can’t imagine that only the witnesses that our Democratic colleagues would want to call would be called,” McConnell said.
He also made clear the Senate will not vote to immediately dismiss the articles of impeachment, as Trump demanded on Twitter over the weekend.
Trump on Sunday said that anything short of an “outright dismissal” gives “the partisan Democratic witch hunt credibility,” but McConnell said Tuesday there simply aren’t enough votes to do that.
McConnell said “there is little or no sentiment in the Republican conference for a motion to dismiss” the articles of impeachment, adding “our members feel that we have an obligation to listen to the arguments.”