The Democratic House impeachment managers have delivered their ratified article against Donald Trump to the Senate, automatically triggering a process that will culminate with a dramatic trial for the ex-president on 8 February.
Senators will be sworn in as jurors on Tuesday.
Mr Trump, who left office on 20 January, will be the first president to stand in an impeachment trial twice.
Mr Trump’s legal defence team and the nine House impeachment managers, led by Maryland Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin, will have two weeks to file their respective legal briefs and prepare for the trial, a timeline negotiated between Senate Leaders Chuck Schumer (of the Democrats) and Mitch McConnell (of the Republicans).
The House — including every Democrat plus 10 Republicans — voted on 13 January to impeach Mr Trump for inciting a bloody insurrection at the US Capitol just a week earlier, on 6 January, as Congress was certifying then-President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
Among those 10 Republicans was House GOP Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking member of her conference behind Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise.
The difference three weeks makes
On Monday around 7pm local time, impeachment managers walked the ratified impeachment article over to the Senate side of the Capitol to deliver it to the upper chamber’s new majority leader, Mr Schumer.
They filed solemnly through the legislature’s famed Statuary Hall and the Capitol Rotunda, where less than three weeks earlier hundreds of pro-Trump rioters — many proudly waving Confederate flags and Trump campaign banners — had run amok after overrunning the US Capitol Police.
At a podium on the Senate floor facing the dais, Mr Raskin read aloud the four-page impeachment article, which officially accuses Mr Trump of “incitement to insurrection,” and promptly exited the chamber.
At the trial’s conclusion, 17 Senate Republicans must vote with all 50 Democrats if the chamber is to reach the two-thirds majority needed to ban Mr Trump from holding public office again in the future.
While some Senate Republicans have remained circumspect about how they are approaching the trial, many have already publicly expressed their opposition to it.
“I think the trial is stupid. I think it’s counterproductive. We already have a flaming fire in this country and it’s like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, joining the ranks of Trump loyalists such as Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, who have taken the approach of appeasing the mass of GOP voters with false notions of a “stolen election.”
And GOP Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota on Sunday said it was a “moot point” if the Senate were to convict Mr Trump because he is already out of office. (As explained above, the Senate can also bar an impeached individual from ever holding office again.)
“Donald Trump is no longer the president, he is a former president,” Mr Rounds said, alluding to the fringe argument being made by conservative legal scholars in recent weeks doubting the constitutionality of putting an impeached former president on trial.
A political process
While the arguments emanating from the openly anti-impeachment crowd in the GOP are legally dubious and defy precedent, they do underscore how impeachment is an inherently political process.
The Senate technically becomes a “jury,” yes, but the US Constitution does not lay out specific “instructions,” as judges at common criminal trials do.
It also neglects to outline a standard of proof, a topic of considerable debate at previous non-presidential impeachment trials.
The Constitution, purposely vague, allows individual senators to construct and apply their own rules for a given trial. That means politics and public perception inevitably influence most senators’ decision-making.
So even if Mr Rubio and Mr Rounds conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Trump indeed incited an insurrection — even if they conclude, within their hearts and minds, such behaviour is impeachable — they are still well within their constitutional rights to vote against conviction if they deem the political and social consequences too steep (or whatever else their motivations might be).
While Utah Senator Mitt Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict Mr Trump at his first impeachment trial last February, it appears likely he’ll be joined by at least a few others this time around.
GOP Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska have been quite vocal denouncing the president’s actions and hinting at their support for the hasty House impeachment.
Even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has left open the possibility of voting to convict Mr Trump, reportedly viewing the former president’s permanent banishment from public office as a decisive means of diminishing his long-term influence over the GOP.
If Mr McConnell indeed votes to convict, perhaps some of the Republicans publicly grousing about the impeachment trial will abandon their instincts and follow his lead.
Democrats remain hopeful
That’s what impeachment manager Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, believes will happen.
“As the days go on, more and more evidence comes out about the president's involvement in the incitement of this insurrection, the incitement of this riot, and also his dereliction of duty once it was going on,” Mr Castro told NPR over the weekend.
As for the bulk of the Senate GOP who have not yet said how they will vote, “I would hope that, first of all, they keep their powder dry, that they listen to all the evidence and wait for the case to be presented,” Mr Castro said.
“But most of all, at the end of the day, what we need is for people to put country over person, in other words, over Donald Trump and also country over party, Republican or Democrat,” he said.
President Pro Tempore of the Senate Patrick Leahy, the longtime Democrat from Vermont, will preside over the impeachment trial proceedings instead of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Mr Roberts presided over Mr Trump’s first impeachment trial, but as Mr Trump is no longer president, the chief justice is under no constitutional obligation to see this second one through.
Mr Leahy has dismissed the notion that he cannot remain impartial as a Democrat presiding over a process in which he himself will vote.
“I have presided over hundreds of hours in my time in the Senate. I don't think anybody has ever suggested I was anything but impartial in those hundreds of hours,” Mr Leahy told reporters on Monday, indicating that his time as a committee chairman and senior member of the Senate has prepared him for this role.
“I'm not presenting the evidence. I am making sure that procedures are followed,” Mr Leahy said.
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