Explainer

What you need to know as Trump’s second impeachment trial begins

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Washington, DC, on January 6. Debate begins Tuesday on whether his speech incited the violent mob that stormed the US Capitol later that day.
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Washington, DC, on January 6. Debate begins Tuesday on whether his speech incited the violent mob that stormed the US Capitol later that day. © Jacquelyn Martin, AP file

The US Senate begins debate Tuesday on the unprecedented second impeachment of former US president Donald Trump as lawmakers decide whether he is guilty of inciting the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

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US senators will step into uncharted territory when they sit in judgment of a president who is no longer in office but who remains a potent force in his party. The extraordinary proceedings will unfold in one of the chambers ransacked by an angry mob of Trump supporters who stormed Congress on January 6, seeking to halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win.

If convicted, the former Republican president could be barred from holding public office in the future, dealing a fatal blow to any hopes he may have of running again in 2024.

FRANCE 24 takes a look at the basics of the trial and its broader implications.

What are the charges against Trump?

The 45th US president is accused of “inciting violence against the government of the United States” by using inflammatory language at a rally in Washington, DC, moments before his supporters launched the deadly attack on the Capitol. 

One week after the siege, when Trump was still the sitting president, the House of Representatives formally impeached him for “high crimes and misdemeanors”. House members voted 232 to 197 in favour of impeachment, with 10 Republicans joining Democrats, making Trump the first president in US history to be twice impeached.

When will we get a verdict?

The US Constitution says the House has sole power of impeachment, while only the Senate can try and convict an impeached president. A two-thirds majority of senators is required for the president to be found guilty – a threshold that has never been crossed before.

It is still unclear how long the trial will last, but both Democrats and Republicans are keen for the proceedings to be swift. The GOP does not want to dwell on a divisive episode that raises tricky questions about its future course; Democratic senators are in a hurry to move on Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package that tackles the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump's first impeachment trial, in which the Senate acquitted him on charges that he abused power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, lasted almost three weeks. This one is expected to be shorter as the case is less complicated and senators are already familiar with the details. 

Should Trump be convicted, the Senate could then vote to bar him from seeking office again – this time by a simple majority. Such a move would nip in the bud any remaining hopes of running for election again in 2024.

How likely is a conviction?

The two-thirds majority requirement means Democrats need to persuade at least 17 Republican senators to convict Trump – a target they are unlikely to reach. 

Trump was acquitted in his first impeachment trial a year ago with only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney, voting to convict. In a vote last month, 45 of the Senate’s 50 Republicans backed an effort to dismiss the trial based on the argument that, under the US Constitution, only a sitting president can be impeached.

What to expect from Trump's accusers

Setting the tone in a pre-trial brief, the House-appointed prosecutors – known as impeachment managers – have accused Trump of “creating a powder keg, striking a match, and then seeking personal advantage from the ensuing havoc".

They intend to use many of Trump's own public statements against him, including his repeated, baseless claims that the election was “stolen” and his January 6 speech near the White House in which he urged his supporters to “fight like hell”. They are also expected to use social media posts and mobile phone data as evidence that Trump's words incited the mob that stormed the Capitol later that day.

Five people were killed, including a police officer, in the violent assault staged by Trump supporters on June 6.
Five people were killed, including a police officer, in the violent assault staged by Trump supporters on June 6. © Roberto Schmidt, REUTERS

The prosecutors are likely to produce shocking images of the Capitol siege, including footage of a police officer crushed between doors, blood trickling from his mouth. There may be additional evidence of how another officer, Brian Sicknick, died defending the building.

Senators will also be reminded of their own vulnerability as they fled for their lives and of the rioters' chants calling for Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, to be hanged. 

What will Trump's lawyers argue?  

Trump’s lawyers have shot down an invitation to the former president to testify in the Senate. Their defence will focus on two points: that the trial is “moot” because Trump cannot be removed from an office he no longer holds and that his inflammatory rhetoric amounts to constitutionally protected free speech.

The first point is likely to win more support among Republican senators. Few have publicly defended Trump’s behaviour in the run-up to the insurrection and they are expected to focus on the constitutionality of the trial instead.

Is the trial constitutional?

Republicans, and some scholars, say the text and purpose of the US Constitution make clear that the Senate’s power is limited to convicting a sitting president.

Anticipating that posture, the impeachment managers noted in their pre-trial brief that there is no “January exception” in the Constitution – referring to the president’s last weeks in office before a successor is inaugurated on January 20. They argued that “presidents do not get a free pass to commit high crimes and misdemeanors near the end of their term”.

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Many experts believe that presidents who commit misconduct late in their terms should not be immune from the very process the Constitution created for holding them accountable. Since impeachment proceedings can result in disqualification from future office, they argue that there is a continuing issue for the Senate to resolve – not least since Trump has floated the idea of running again.

In the run-up to the trial, a bipartisan group of roughly 150 lawyers signed a letter arguing that Trump can still be convicted in an impeachment trial. They included members of the Federalist Society, a legal group that wields influence in conservative politics.

"We differ from one another in our politics, and we also differ from one another on issues of constitutional interpretation,” they wrote. “But despite our differences, our carefully considered views of the law lead all of us to agree that the Constitution permits the impeachment, conviction, and disqualification of former officers, including presidents.”

Has this happened before?

There are two instances in which the Senate held impeachment trials for officials after they had left office – senator William Blount in 1797 and secretary of war William Belknap in 1876. Blount's trial was halted before the Senate could decide its verdict and Belknap was acquitted.

However, critics of the impeachment trial counter that Congress's earlier interpretations of its power do not amount to a legal precedent.

What do the people think?

Opinion polls suggest public support for a Trump conviction is stronger now than during his first impeachment trial.

According to an Ipsos/ABC News poll, 56 percent of Americans favour conviction against 43 percent who disagree. A similar poll carried out during the first impeachment trial found that only 46 percent supported a guilty verdict.

Last week, another poll released by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Trump bears at least a moderate amount of responsibility for the Capitol assault. That includes half who said Trump bears a great deal or quite a bit of responsibility. 

Is the trial about more than just Trump?

Whatever the verdict, the outcome of the trial will carry major implications for a battered Republican Party, which has lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in the space of just two years. 

A Trump conviction, followed by a possible ban from future office, would facilitate attempts to purge him from the party. On the other hand, his likely acquittal would prove he retains considerable sway, despite his efforts to subvert democracy and widespread condemnation from his GOP colleagues after the Capitol riot. 

For Democrats, the trial is also about upholding American democracy in the face of threats both foreign and domestic. They are determined to send out a message after a shocking event that stunned the nation’s allies and prompted mockery from its foes.

“You cannot go forward until you have justice,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week. “If we were not to follow up with this, we might as well remove any penalty from the Constitution of impeachment.” 

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