WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial will begin in earnest in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday with a likely squabble between Republicans and Democrats over ground rules kicking off proceedings that could last days or weeks before a near-certain acquittal.
The process will still be full of high-pressure votes for certain senators, led by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has indicated more willingness than most other Republicans to hear from witnesses but is running a 2020 re-election bid in which she is one of Democrats’ top targets.
Here’s the context, a guide to the pressure points for Collins and others and how the trial will work.
How did we get here? House Democrats kicked off their impeachment inquiry in September after after a whistleblower report emerged that saying the Republican president may have pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in 2020. Aid to Ukraine was held up by Trump but released in September after the report was public.
The House approved two articles of impeachment in December, alleging Trump abused his office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections” and obstructing Congress’ oversight like “no president” in U.S. history. Trump’s defense team has begun to argue that “criminal-like” conduct is required and that the articles are therefore invalid. That has been dismissed by Democrats and certain legal scholars.
The House has continued to advance evidence, including last week when writings from Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, were turned over to a House committee and released. They claim Trump had “knowledge and consent” of efforts to pressure the Ukranian leader to investigate the Bidens.
The Senate will open Tuesday with debate on the structure and rules of the proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is proposing a condensed, two-day calendar for opening arguments on the articles passed by the House on Dec. 18. McConnell’s ground rules are outlined in a four-page resolution that must be voted on as one of the first orders of business.
It pushes off any votes on witnesses until later in the process, rather than up front, as Democrats had demanded, and they are likely to offer a series of amendments Tuesday. McConnell’s plan on witnesses lines up with the organizing resolution that set the structure of President Bill Clinton’s trial in 1999, though it attempts to speed up the proceedings and doesn’t automatically admit House evidence into the Senate record.
The Senate is unlikely to remove Trump, but there will be high-pressure votes on the process, with Maine’s Republican senator taking many of them. While Trump can only be removed with two-thirds of votes from 100 senators in the Republican-led chamber, it will only take 51 senators to agree on almost anything to make it happen during the impeachment trial. That means Democrats need to woo four Republican senators to get to a majority.
One of the Republicans they will target is Collins, who has been working with a small group of her party’s senators in a bid to “allow the opportunity for both the House and the president’s counsel to call witnesses if they choose to do so,” she said earlier this month.
That means that Collins and other Republican senators — including Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — are open to hearing witnesses and considering other evidence. Collins said in a statement last week that she would “likely” vote in favor of one measure allowing witnesses and documents. It is likely to be one of the high-profile votes of the trial.
The first big vote may come as early as Tuesday, when the Senate is likely to adopt McConnell’s proposed ground rules for the trial. Collins’ office hasn’t yet said if she supports McConnell’s proposed rules. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, criticized them on Tuesday as an attempt to “undermine our work before it’s even begun.”
Maine’s senators haven’t taken stances on impeachment yet. Here’s what they have said. Collins has largely refused to discuss the House proceedings, though she intimated that Democrats rushed them after the Parnas writings became public. King has called himself a “conservative” on impeachment, but he has been critical of Trump and McConnell while endorsing the House Democrats’ inquiry. He still hasn’t taken a stance on conviction, noting an oath senators take to do “impartial justice” on the question of removal.
Proceedings can be closed at any time. “At all times,” according to Senate rules, a majority of senators present can vote to close the proceedings and debate in private. That would mean the cameras shut off and everyone who’s not a member of the Senate kicked out of the chamber until the senators choose to reopen it. Senators did that at various points during the Clinton trial. McConnell then argued that members of the chamber listen to each other better in private.
Senators could be held in Washington for weeks. After the four days of opening arguments — maximum 24 hours per side — senators will be allowed up to 16 hours for questions to the prosecution and defense, followed by four hours of debate. Only then will there be votes on calling other witnesses. Senate rules say the trial must proceed six days a week — all but Sunday — until it is resolved.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman wrote this report. Other information from the Associated Press was included.