Today, the U.S. Senate will begin the impeachment trial to determine whether former President Donald Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection. This is the second time he has been impeached, the first time ever for a U.S. president. In 2019, he was impeached on two counts of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for attempting to extort the president of Ukraine into digging up dirt on political rival, Joe Biden. Trump was eventually acquitted by a Republican-led Senate. Given that Trump is no longer in office and the Democrats are now in charge of the Senate, there are a lot of questions around how this will all play out and what it means.
Here, The Root will break down the basics as these Senate proceedings unfold.
Why was Trump impeached again—and what is this trial about?
The House of Representatives, which has Constitutional power to impeach, voted on Jan. 13 to impeach Trump on one article of impeachment for inciting an insurrection against the government at the U.S. Capitol that took place Jan. 6.
Today, Trump is slated to stand trial in the Senate and if he is convicted, he could possibly lose his pension and all other benefits of being a former U.S. president. Given that Republicans have signaled their unwillingness to hold Trump accountable after 45 senators voted against holding an impeachment trial, Senate Democrats have an uphill battle to conviction. Conviction requires a two-third vote of the Senate, meaning 17 Republicans would need to join all the 50 Democrats. If he is convicted, a second vote would be needed to bar him from running for elected office in the future.
It is important to note that, technically, this is a political trial and not a criminal or civil proceeding that you’d ordinarily see in a traditional court of law. The U.S. Constitution, via the three branches of government, empowers Congress to remove an unfit president.
But Trump is out of office. Why does any of this matter?
Democrats want to make clear that Trump’s behavior almost caused the undoing of American democracy and that he should be held accountable regardless of whether he is in office or not. In the past, a president was in office when he was impeached; Bill Clinton, the last president impeached before Trump, was in office when he was impeached. He was eventually acquitted. Richard Nixon resigned before having to suffer the embarrassment of an inevitable impeachment over Watergate.
In Trump’s case, he was impeached just a week before Biden’s inauguration. Then-Majority Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring the Senate back into session to begin the impeachment trial, essentially running out the clock before Trump left office.
At the heart of this impeachment trial is the underlying issue that Trump is a national security threat who Democrats believe does not deserve access to any benefits of U.S. protections that would empower him to attack American democracy again. The Biden administration has even considered cutting Trump’s access to security briefings.
Is it even Constitutional to hold an impeachment trial if he’s not in office?
The trial will open up with four hours of debate to determine just that. Most of the Republican senators backed a motion last month questioning the trial’s constitutionality. But more than 150 scholars argued that it is, in fact, constitutional. But the trial is all but certain to proceed because Vice President Kamala Harris will give the deciding vote to the Democrats in the 50-50 split Senate.
Since an impeachment of this type is unprecedented, these proceedings will likely establish a future precedent. For example, there are some who wondered whether or not it was constitutional that Trump was impeached so close to his term ending. Timing doesn’t matter. The House impeached U.S. War Secretary William Belknap the day he resigned, and his trial was held months later, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
What evidence will Democrats present?
Basically, Trump’s own words and words of the people he incited at the Capitol riots. Democrats plan on playing video of his speech just before a mob stormed the Capitol and using rioters’ words against Trump, basically arguing that they rioted at the Capitol at Trump’s invitation.
Trump’s lawyers claim they will present video of Democrats who, in their words, incited riots. Trump attorney Bruce Castor told Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently that “there’s a lot of tape of cities burning and courthouses being attacked and federal agents being assaulted by rioters in the streets, cheered on by Democrats throughout the country.” This is complete nonsense but that won’t stop Castor and Trump’s team from pushing that argument.
What’s going to happen at the trial?
Nine House impeachment managers, chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will present their case against former president Trump. The lead manager is Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and other representatives include Diana DeGette of Colorado, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Joaquin Castro of Texas, Eric Swalwell and Ted Lieu of California, Joe Neguse of Colorado, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania and Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
They will basically act like prosecutors representing the state and will present their evidence like in any traditional trial. Each house manager will present their case to the senators, who act as jurors. Then, Trump’s lawyers will get a chance to defend their client. This part is likely to be the only aspect of the impeachment trial that will resemble anything we see in a traditional court.
Once both sides present their case, the Senate will have time to ask handwritten questions, which will be submitted to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the president pro-tempore of the Senate. He will preside over the trial and read the questions aloud, per NBC News. (Normally, the Constitution would have required Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over an impeachment trial, as he did in the first Trump impeachment trial, but since Trump is no longer in office, Roberts opted out.) House managers will be able to call witnesses and present other evidence. If that does not happen, closing arguments will take place and then the Senate will vote. Again, two-thirds have to vote to convict the ex-president.
The trial starts at 1 p.m. today and there will be four hours of debate to determine its constitutionality.
Trump declined a request to testify before the Senate. He also didn’t show up at the first trial.
How long will the trial last?
If Joe Biden and Democratic leadership have their way, as quick as possible. Trump’s first impeachment trial lasted three weeks, a timeline neither Democrats nor Republicans have signaled they have an appetite for. Democrats do not want this trial to get in the way of Biden’s political priorities, and having an impeachment trial headline the news cycle 24/7 is an easy way to do that. Also, Senate rules dictate that the impeachment must take priority over other pending business, so do not expect much else to get done while this is going on.
Most importantly, Democrats know that getting at least 17 Republicans to convict is slim no none. So, the trial may likely end next week, though, officially, there is no timeline of when it should or will end.
For now, here is a trial timeline.
What are the other options if Trump is not convicted?
There is talk that the Democratic-controlled Senate could invoke section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution that bars anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. from holding federal office, per The Guardian. Even though the power to remove someone from office rests in the power of Congress, Vox notes that federal prosecutors could bring charges against Trump. Democrats are also considering censure.
This is an unprecedented impeachment. Strap yourselves in. This is gonna be an interesting ride.