WASHINGTON – The prosecutors, Democrats, want to call witnesses to testify. The defense — the White House — rejects the idea as “laughable.”
Welcome to the trial of a U.S. president, where the party of the accused, Donald Trump, can decide the rules and some “jurors” — senators — declare before the start whether they will find him innocent or guilty.
After the House of Representatives votes Wednesday to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, a sitting president will stand trial in the Senate for the third time in U.S. history.
If found guilty, he can be removed from office — unprecedented in U.S. history.
If the procedures are followed from the previous two times, in 1868 and 1999, sometime in early January a group of Democratic House lawmakers will enter the Senate to read out the two articles of impeachment — the charges — against Trump, a Republican.
“All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment,” the Senate sergeant at arms will admonish.
After that the 100 senators — 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats — will sit in judgment on one of the world’s most powerful people.
To remove him from office, 67 have to find him guilty — highly unlikely, given the Republicans’ numerical strength.
It will be no ordinary trial. For one thing, the senators, by majority vote, set the rules: if witnesses can be called, and which ones; how long prosecutors can take to present their case; how long the trial will last.
Despite the impeachment in the House, if the Senate doesn’t want to try Trump, it can simply dismiss the case by majority vote.
And given Trump’s political hold over his party, the rules can be dictated by the White House itself.
“We’ll be working through this process, hopefully in a fairly short period of time, in total coordination with White House counsel’s office and the people who are representing the president in the well of the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week. “There is zero chance that the president will be removed from office.”
The broad rules for the first impeachment and trial, of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, were adopted when Bill Clinton went on trial in January 1999.
If they are likewise followed for Trump, the prosecutors — “managers” — from the House will assemble in the Senate to announce the charges on the first day.
The sergeant-at-arms will notify the White House by summons that the president has been charged.
And John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, will be sworn in to preside over the trial.
The next day, the 100 senators who will sit in judgment will swear an oath: “I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.”
The next step, the procedures, will be decided by the senators.
A battle has already erupted between McConnell and the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, over whether witnesses will be called and evidence demanded.
Those issues could prolong the trial from the two weeks McConnell has reportedly envisioned to over a month. Clinton’s trial ran five weeks.
Democrats hope that four Republicans might join them to force McConnell to allow witnesses.
That underscores the complex role of the senators and the essential political nature of the trial.
Even before impeachment passes the House, some Republicans have declared where they stand.
“The House impeachment articles are a joke,” Sen. Josh Hawley told Fox News. “This whole thing is a joke, and it’s time to get the president exonerated.”
But the key factor is that, unlike in Clinton’s trial, when the Democratic president faced a Republican-led Senate, in Trump’s trial the White House and Senate majority are aligned.
McConnell spelled out the facts to reporters on Tuesday.
“I think we’re going to get almost an entirely partisan impeachment,” he said.
“This is a political process. There is nothing judicial about it. I’m not impartial about this at all.”