House Democrats on Monday sent to the Senate their single impeachment article against Donald Trump, officially putting the former president on trial for his role in the deadly mob attack on the Capitol earlier in the month.
The ceremonial delivery — a somber cross-Capitol march performed by the nine Democratic House members who will prosecute the case — was a legal formality: The House had impeached Trump 12 days ago and Senate leaders have agreed to postpone the start of the public trial until the week of Feb. 8.
The timeline itself has been strategic, allowing the newly seated President Biden some breathing room to install several top Cabinet officials and advance the debate over another massive package of coronavirus relief, before the Senate becomes consumed by the highly contentious impeachment trial.
The details of that trial remain opaque. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has revealed neither how long the process will last, nor if Democrats will invite witness testimony to boost their case. But Democrats in both chambers have predicted the exercise will be shorter than the 21-day trial in 2020, after Trump was impeached on two charges related to his dealings with Ukraine.
Then, the Republican-controlled Senate had cleared Trump of both charges, with only one GOP senator, Utah’s Mitt Romney, voting to convict the president on allegations that he’d abused his power.
This time around, the landscape is different — and the math is expected to be as well.
Not only is Trump no longer in office, but his efforts to rouse thousands of his supporters to march on the Capitol to block Congress from formalizing Biden’s victory has been denounced by even some of his most devoted supporters.
Ten House Republicans joined every Democrat in impeaching Trump just seven days after the violent mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, killing a police officer and threatening violence against any lawmaker of either party poised to certify the election results, including Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence.
The single article charges Trump with “willfully inciting violence against the government of the United States."
The trial phase puts Senate Republicans in a jam, forced to choose between defending their party’s standard-bearer or sending a message to future presidents that encouraging mobs to nullify state-certified elections won’t go unpunished. Adding to the pressure on GOP senators has been the long list of Republican figures outside of Congress voicing outrage at Trump’s actions.
“What we had was an incitement to riot at the United States Capitol. We had people killed, and to me there’s not a whole lot of question here,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Trump’s earliest GOP backers, said just after the riot. “If inciting to insurrection isn’t [impeachable], I don’t really know what it is.”
Still, the former president retains enormous sway over base voters in the GOP, the majority of whom blame Biden for the Capitol siege.
And Senate Republicans are already lining up against Trump’s conviction. Some maintain he did nothing wrong, suggesting without evidence that rampant fraud turned the election for Biden. Others are posing a legal argument, saying it’s unconstitutional to impeach a former president. Still others are making a political case, warning that the country is too violently divided to withstand another impeachment trial.
“We already have a flaming fire in this country,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told “Fox News Sunday.” “And it’s like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire.”
Those arguments have been roundly rejected by Democrats, who say Trump committed crimes of sedition on live TV and must face the consequences. While he is no longer in office, they’re fighting for a Senate conviction to bar him from running again.
“We must not give Donald Trump a pass for inciting a deadly insurrection on our Capitol just a few weeks ago,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a key figure in Trump’s first impeachment, said Monday. “He must be held accountable.”
Unlike Trump's last impeachment, where Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presided, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate pro tempore and a frequent Trump critic, will be presiding over this trial. But Leahy pushed back on any suggestion he would tip the scale in favor of the prosecuting Democrats.
“I'm not presenting the evidence; I’m making sure that procedures are followed,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don't think there's any senator who over the 40-plus years I've been here would say that I've been anything but impartial in ruling on procedure.”
The formal transmission of the article came near the close of a hectic and historic month. Over a span of two weeks, the country saw an unprecedented mob attack on the seat of its democracy, the first impeachment of a president for the second time in his tenure, the inauguration of its oldest new president and a vice president who broke through barriers of both race and gender and the 400,000th death from the coronavirus pandemic.
Five people died in the Capitol attack, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. And scores of officers from both the Capitol Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police forces were injured.
During Monday’s solemn ceremony, acting Sergeant-at-Arms Timothy Blodgett and Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson led the procession of the nine impeachment managers through some of the same ornate, historical spaces the rioters had poured into during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
They passed through Statuary Hall, the old House chamber; walked past the Speaker’s Office where some rioters had ripped Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) nameplate off the wall; through the majestic Rotunda, where assailants engaged in hand-to-hand combat with police; and finally to the doors of the Senate chamber, which rioters had breached in their failed quest to overturn the election.
The nine Democrats who will prosecute the case against Trump are all Pelosi loyalists. She tapped Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), a former constitutional law professor, to serve as the lead impeachment manager. The others are Reps. Diana DeGette (Colo.), David Cicilline (R.I.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Eric Swalwell (Calif.), Ted Lieu (Calif.), Stacey Plaskett (V.I.), Madeleine Dean (Pa.) and Joe Neguse (Colo.).
Notably, Pelosi did not add any of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment to the team of managers.
It was Raskin's task Monday evening to read the impeachment charges on the Senate floor, including warnings that Trump poses an ongoing threat "to national security, democracy and the Constitution" and therefore should be disqualified from holding "any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States."
Behind him, Leahy presided over the reading, while the senators on the floor included both Schumer and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader who has said Trump directly "provoked" the attack on the Capitol.
More formalities will follow Tuesday, when all 100 senators will be sworn in as both judges and jurors. The Senate will then issue a formal summons to Trump, and his defense team and the prosecution will be given time to draft their legal briefs before public arguments begin next month.
It’s highly unlikely that enough Republicans will join Democrats to meet the threshold for conviction, which requires two-thirds of the Senate. But Democratic leaders are hell-bent on ensuring that senators are forced to pick a side, if only for the historical record.