WASHINGTON – Less than five weeks after his riotous supporters stormed the Capitol, Donald Trump is set to go on trial a second time in the Senate — an impeachment proceeding that will give the public the fullest accounting so far of the former president’s role in the attack but almost surely not resolve a divided nation’s view of his legacy.
The split remains stark nationally, where a new poll finds that more than 9 in 10 Democrats, but fewer than 2 in 10 Republicans, say they believe Trump was a major contributor to the insurrection.
Trump’s lawyers on Monday blasted the impeachment case against him as an act of “political theater” and accused House Democrats on the eve of the former president’s trial of exploiting the chaos and trauma of last month’s Capitol riot for their party’s gain.
Trump’s legal brief is a wide-ranging attack on the House case, foreshadowing the claims his lawyers intend to present on the same Senate floor that was invaded by rioters on Jan. 6. The sharp-tongued tone, with accusations that Democrats are making “patently absurd” arguments and trying to “silence a political opponent,” makes clear that Trump’s lawyers are preparing to challenge both the constitutionality of the trial and any suggestion that he was to blame for the insurrection.
“While never willing to allow a ‘good crisis’ to go to waste, the Democratic leadership is incapable of understanding that not everything can always be blamed on their political adversaries, no matter how very badly they may wish to exploit any moment of uncertainty on the part of the American people,” the defense lawyers say.
In their brief, they suggest that Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he disputed the election results and argue that he explicitly encouraged his supporters to have a peaceful protest and therefore cannot be responsible for the actions of the rioters. They also say the Senate is not entitled to try Trump now that he has left office, an argument contested by even some conservative legal scholars, and they deny that the goal of the Democrats’ case is justice.
“Instead, this was only ever a selfish attempt by Democratic leadership in the House to prey upon the feelings of horror and confusion that fell upon all Americans across the entire political spectrum upon seeing the destruction at the Capitol on Jan. 6 by a few hundred people,” the lawyers wrote.
House impeachment managers filed their own document Monday, asserting that Trump had “betrayed the American people” and that there is no valid excuse or defense.
“His incitement of insurrection against the United States government — which disrupted the peaceful transfer of power — is the most grievous constitutional crime ever committed by a president,” the Democrats said.
The trial will begin Tuesday with a debate and vote on whether it’s even constitutional to prosecute the former president, an argument that could resonate with Republicans keen on voting to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behavior. Opening arguments would begin Wednesday at noon, with up to 16 hours per side for presentations.
Under a draft agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, the proceedings will break Friday evening for the Jewish Sabbath at the request of Trump’s defense team and resume on Sunday. There will likely be no witnesses, and the former president has declined a request to testify.
This impeachment trial will be different because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Rather than sitting at their desks through the trial, senators may be spread out, including in the “marble room” just off the Senate floor, where proceedings will be shown on TV, and in the public galleries above the chamber, to accommodate social distancing, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Trump’s second impeachment trial is opening with a sense of urgency — by Democrats who want to hold him accountable for the violent Capitol siege and Republicans who want it over as quickly as possible.
The proceedings are expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated trial that resulted in Trump’s acquittal a year ago on charges that he privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival, Joe Biden, now the president. This time, Trump’s rally cry to “fight like hell” and the storming of the Capitol played out for the world to see. Trump very well could be acquitted again, and the trial could be over in half the time.
Biden will be busy with the business of the presidency and won’t spend “too much time watching,” press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked on Monday.
Trump is the first president to be twice impeached, and the only one to face trial after leaving the White House. The Democratic-led House approved a sole charge, “incitement of insurrection,” acting swiftly one week after the riot, the most violent attack on Congress in more than 200 years. Five people died, including a woman shot by police inside the building and a police officer who died of injuries the next day.