The historic second impeachment trial of Donald Trump is expected to begin Tuesday. Here’s a full preview of the trial, including what to look for, how to watch and what the outcome could likely be:
What are the charges?
Trump is the third American president to be impeached and the first to be impeached twice.
In late 2019, the Democrat-led U.S. House impeached him on two charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The GOP-led Senate acquitted Trump on both charges in February 2020. Prior to Trump, only Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton had been impeached. Both were also acquitted by the Senate.
The latest impeachment charge — authored by U.S. Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Ted Lieu of California — alleges Trump incited the violence that led to a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
One Capitol Police officer, Brian David Sicknick, died from injuries suffered in the riot. One protester — Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, 35, who was a 14-year U.S. Air Force veteran — was shot to death during the protest.
The riot began when Trump supporters descended on the nation’s capital the same day as Congress began certifying the Electoral College vote, which assured Democrat Joe Biden the presidency. More Americans in history cast their ballot before and during the Nov. 3 presidential election, and Biden secured an overwhelming majority of the popular vote — more than 80 million — and electoral votes, 306. A total of 270 Electoral College votes are needed to win the White House.
However, before and after the election, Trump continued to make widespread allegations about the integrity of the electoral process and claimed massive voter fraud. His legal teams filed numerous lawsuits in several battleground states, all of which have been dismissed by those respective judges.
Before the riot, Trump addressed his supporters, thousands of whom then marched to the U.S. Capitol and breached the building. Congress and staff were forced to evacuate the building and forced into recess until the violence could be contained. Later that evening and stretching into the next day, Congress officially certified the Electoral College totals, ensuring Biden’s win as the nation’s 46th president.
After weeks of delays and legal challenges, Trump eventually acknowledged Biden’s victory, though he never conceded the election.
Approving one impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection,” the Democrat-led House impeached Trump on Jan. 13, one week before his term was to have ended anyway. The unprecedented second impeachment of an American president came without hearings, witnesses or testimony.
Who are the major players?
Besides Cicilline, Raskin and Lieu, the other House impeachment managers named by Speaker Nancy Pelosi are Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado; Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California; Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-U.S. Virgin Islands; Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colorado; and Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania.
Trump’s defense team will be led by David Schoen and Bruce Castor, both veteran lawyers. The pair came on board last week after Trump’s first defense team quit amid a disagreement with the former president.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is presiding over the trial. Leahy, 80, and the Senate’s longest-serving member, is among a handful of senators who has voted on the nomination of every current Supreme Court justice, backing the three Democratic appointees and opposing the Republican picks except for Chief Justice John Roberts.
Leahy is president pro tempore of the Senate. In Trump’s first impeachment trial, Roberts was constitutionally obligated to preside because Trump was president. Now, with Trump out of office, Roberts is under no obligation to oversee the proceedings, hence Leahy.
Who is responsible for the riot? Democrats say there’s only one answer, and it’s Trump.
The Democrats contend Trump was “singularly responsible” for the attack by “creating a powder keg, striking a match, and then seeking personal advantage from the ensuing havoc.” They say it’s “impossible” to imagine the riot unfolding as it did without Trump’s encouragement, and they even cite as support a fellow Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who said essentially the same thing.
Trump’s lawyers, by contrast, suggest he can’t be responsible because he never incited anyone to “engage in destructive behavior.” They concede there was an illegal breach of the Capitol that resulted in deaths and injuries. But they say the people who are “responsible” — the ones who entered the building and vandalized it — are being investigated and prosecuted.
Trump’s lawyers don’t dispute that he told supporters to “fight like hell” before the Capitol siege. But the defense says that Trump, like any citizen, is protected by the First Amendment to “express his belief that the election results were suspect.” He had an opinion that he was entitled to express, they say, and if the First Amendment only protected popular speech, it’d be “no protection at all.”
House Democrats don’t see it that way. For one thing, they say the First Amendment is meant to protect private citizens from the government, not to allow government officials to abuse their power. And while a private citizen may have a right to advocate for totalitarianism or the overthrow of the government, “no one would seriously suggest” that a president who adopted those same positions should be immune from impeachment.
Trump’s team denies that the impeachment trial can be held because he is no longer in office. They deny that he incited his supporters to violence. And they deny he did anything wrong Jan. 6 or the weeks leading up to the riot.
When Trump told the crowd, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he was merely pressing the “need to fight for election security in general,” Trump’s lawyers claim. He was not attempting to interfere with the counting of electoral votes.
“It is denied that President Trump ever endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government,” they wrote. “It is denied he threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch Government.” Rather, they say, he “performed admirably in his role as president, at all times doing what he thought was in the best interests of the American people.”
How long will it last?
Unknown. Trump’s last impeachment trial lasted three weeks, but Democrats are seemingly in a hurry to continue working to address Biden’s list of priorities for his first 100 days in office.
How can I watch?
AJC.com will carry a livestream each day of the trial. Virtually every major 24-hour news network, including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, will likely have around-the-clock coverage. The proceedings will also be broadcast on C-SPAN and the Senate’s livestreaming service.
Will Trump be convicted?
Unlikely. Despite a second impeachment, Trump will likely not become the first American president convicted. Just like last year, two-thirds of the Senate is needed to convict, meaning Democrats — even if they vote along party lines as expected — will still need 17 Republicans to side with them to convict Trump. And 45 of the 50 Senate Republicans voted last week to challenge the constitutionality of the trial, all but assuring that Trump will be acquitted.
It is true that no president has faced impeachment proceedings after leaving office, but House managers say there’s ample precedent. They cite the case of former Secretary of War William Belknap, who resigned in 1876 just hours before he was impeached over a kickback scheme. The House impeached him anyway, and the Senate then tried him, though he was ultimately acquitted. Democrats also note that Trump was impeached by the House while he was still president.
The framers of the Constitution intended for the impeachment power to sanction current or former officials for acts committed while in office — with no “January exception,” Democrats wrote. Not only that, they say, the Constitution explicitly allows the Senate to disqualify from future office a former official it convicts.
That possibility, they suggest, makes the case against Trump — who could mount another White House run in 2024 — anything but moot. If Trump is acquitted, Democrats could pass a resolution to “censure” Trump or invoke a section of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to try to have him disqualified from holding office in the future.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution