The U.S. Senate will begin debating Tuesday on former U.S. President Donald Trump’s unsurpassed second indictment as lawmakers decide he is guilty of inciting the deadly January 6 uprising in the U.S. capital.
US senators will enter uncharted territory when they sit in judgment over a president who is no longer in office but who remains a strong force in his party. The extraordinary procedure will develop in one of the chambers, which is being searched by an angry crowd of Trump supporters who stormed Congress on January 6 and tried to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.
If convicted, the former Republican president could be prevented from holding public office in the future and give a fatal blow to all hopes he can have of running again in 2024.
Jowharlooks at the basics of the trial and its wider consequences.
What are the accusations against Trump?
The 45th president of the United States is accused of “encouraging violence against the US government” by using inflammatory language at a meeting in Washington, DC, just before his supporters launched the deadly attack on the Capitol.
One week after the siege, while Trump was still in office, the House of Representatives formally accused him of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” MPs voted 232 to 197 in favor, of which 10 Republicans joined the Democrats, making Trump the first president in US history to be twice accused.
When do we get a verdict?
The US Constitution states that the House has sole power to prosecute, while only the Senate can try to convict an accused president. A two-thirds majority of senators is required for the president to be guilty – a threshold that has never passed before.
It is still unclear how long the trial will last, but both Democrats and Republicans are keen that procedures be speedy. GOP does not want to delay a divisive section that raises tricky questions about its future course. nor do Democratic senators, who are in a hurry to take action on Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion bailout package to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump’s first indictment, in which he was acquitted on charges of abusing power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, lasted almost three weeks. This is expected to be shorter because the case is less complicated and senators already know the details.
If Trump were convicted, the Senate could then vote to prevent him from seeking office again – this time by a simple majority. Such a step would squeeze all remaining hopes of running for re-election in 2024.
Will Trump be guilty?
The demand for a two-thirds majority means that Democrats must persuade at least 17 Republican senators to convict Trump – a goal they are highly unlikely to achieve.
Trump was acquitted in his first indictment a year ago with only one Republican, Mitt Romney, voting to rule. It is far from certain that there will be many more guilty votes this time. In a test vote last month, 45 of the Senate’s 50 Republicans supported an attempt to dismiss the lawsuit – an early indication that Trump is likely to be acquitted again.
What can you expect from Trump’s prosecutors?
The designated prosecutors – known as bosses – have set the tone in a negotiation report and have accused Trump of “creating a powder keg, beating a match and then seeking personal advantage from the ensuing devastation”.
They intend to use many of Trump’s public statements against him, including his repeated, baseless allegations that the election was “stolen” and his speech before the riot near the White House, in which he urged his supporters to “fight like hell.” They are also expected to use posts on social media and cell phone data as evidence that Trump’s words encouraged the mob.
Five people were killed, including a police officer, in the violent attack carried out by Trump supporters on June 6. © Roberto Schmidt, REUTERS
Prosecutors are likely to produce shocking images of the Capitol siege, including images of a police officer smashed between the doors, blood dripping from his mouth. There may be further evidence of how another officer, Brian Sicknick, died in the defense of the building.
Senators will also be reminded of their own vulnerability as they fled for their lives and of the riot song that prompted Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, to be hanged.
What will Trump’s lawyers claim?
Trump’s lawyers have dropped an invitation to the former president to testify in the Senate. Their defense will focus on two points: that the trial is “tough” because Trump cannot be removed from an office he no longer holds, and that his inflammatory rhetoric amounts to constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
The first point is likely to gain more support among Republican senators. Few have publicly defended Trump’s behavior in the face of the uprising. They are expected to focus on constitutional issues instead.
Is the trial constitutional?
Republicans and some scholars say the text and purpose of the constitution make it clear that the Senate’s power is limited to judging a sitting president.
Anticipating this stance, the chief prosecutors noted in their negotiation report that there is no “January exception” in the constitution – referring to the president’s last weeks in office before a successor is inaugurated. They claimed that “presidents do not get a free pass for committing high crimes and misdemeanors at the end of their term”.
Many experts believe that presidents who commit misconduct late in their terms should not be immune from the very process created by the Constitution to hold them accountable. Since indictments could lead to disqualification from future offices, they claim there is a continuing issue for the Senate to resolve – not least because Trump has moved the idea of running again.
During the trial, a two-party group of about 150 lawyers signed a letter claiming that Trump could still be convicted in a lawsuit. They included members of the Federalist Society, a legal group that exercises influence in conservative politics.
“We differ from each other in our policies, and we also differ from each other in matters of constitutional interpretation,” they wrote. “But despite our differences, our carefully considered perceptions of law lead us all to agree that the Constitution allows for the accusation, conviction and disqualification of former officers, including presidents.”
No, there is no right to the first change to encourage rebellion. Especially in a lawsuit.
Nearly 150 constitutional scholars reject Trump’s defense: ” First Amendment does not apply to legal proceedings ” https://t.co/3DcP1qLTMn via @lawcrimenews
– Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) February 6, 2021
Has this happened before?
There are two occasions when the Senate held the right to prosecute officials after they left office – Senator William Blount in 1797 and War Minister William Belknap in 1876. Blont’s trial was stopped before the Senate could rule and Belknap was acquitted.
Critics of the trial, however, oppose that Congress’s previous interpretations of its power do not constitute a legal precedent.
What do the people think?
Opinion polls suggest public support for a Trump conviction is stronger now than during his first indictment.
According to an Ipsos / ABC News survey, 56 percent of Americans prefer conviction to 43 percent who disagree. A similar survey conducted during the first trial showed that only 46 percent supported a guilty verdict.
Last week, another survey published by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Trump bears at least moderate responsibility for the Capitol attack. That includes half who said Trump bears a lot or a lot of responsibility.
Is the trial about more than just Trump?
Regardless of the verdict, the outcome of the trial will have major consequences for an abused Republican party, which has lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in just two years.
A Trump conviction, followed by a possible ban from future offices, would greatly facilitate attempts to purge him from the party. On the other hand, his probable acquittal would prove that he retains significant strength, despite his efforts to undermine 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 domestic and foreign. They are determined to send out a message after a shocking event that stunned the country’s allies and caused ridicule from its enemies.
“You can not move forward until you have justice,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said last week. “If we did not follow up on this, we could just as easily remove all penalties from the prosecution constitution.”