President Donald Trump has been impeached again – the first leader in US history to be impeached twice by the House.
The question now is whether he’ll become the first President to be convicted by the Senate and removed from office.
What’s next? Impeachment in a two-part process. The House introduces and passes the articles of impeachment, but the Senate is where the person being impeached faces a trial – and potential punishment.
What does the Constitution say about the Senate’s role?
Not much. The passage is pretty straightforward. Here it is:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. (Article 1, Section 3)
Are there rules?
Yes. The Senate has a set of rules first created around the impeachment of Andrew Johnson back in 1868 and then updated in 1986. You can read them here.
Senators take an oath before the proceedings. There’s a call to order each day. The Chief Justice has specific duties. There are set time limits for arguments and rebuttals and all questions from senators for the House and Trump attorneys must be submitted in writing and read by the Chief Justice.
When will this trial get started?
That’s not entirely clear. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had indicated before the vote that he will not bring senators back until the last day of Trump’s term – January 19 – at the earliest. He said in a statement late Wednesday that the trial process will begin then.
Can the trial be conducted in a day?
Almost certainly not. This will take some days or even weeks for the group of House lawmakers who will make the case against Trump and his lawyers to answer. So a trial can’t practically happen until after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
So Trump will be out of office before the Senate trial ends?
Yes. The senators will vote on impeaching a former President.
What’s the point of holding an impeachment trial for a former President?
There is precedent for impeaching former officials. Read about that – it’s called a “late impeachment” – here. While the main penalty for a guilty verdict in an impeachment trial is removal from office, senators could vote to bar Trump from holding office in the future – remember, he has not ruled out running for president in 2024. He could also lose his six-figure pension and other post-presidential perks.
But Biden will be President. Won’t the Senate be busy with other things?
Yes. Big time. They will be busy with confirmation hearings for Biden’s Cabinet nominees – at least four are already scheduled for the week of January 20, for Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin, Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen and Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas. Senators could be called on to draft legislation having to do with the pandemic or economic relief – Biden wants to increase relief checks to $2,000.
So impeachment won’t be the only thing on their plate. And it’s likely they’ll only spend a portion of each day on Trump’s trial. They could also, under the rules, appoint a special committee to hear the case, but this seems unlikely.
One thing to keep in mind: While McConnell sets the schedule as Senate majority leader now, he’ll lose that status as soon as the results of Georgia’s January 5 Senate runoff elections are certified and the two new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are seated. At that point, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer will become Senate majority leader and will have more control over the proceedings.
Impeachment failed the first time against Trump. What’s different now?
In a word, Republicans. In the first Trump impeachment trial, only one Republican senator – Mitt Romney of Utah – voted to remove him from office. This time, McConnell, rather than protecting Trump, is said to be happy about the effort as a way to excise Trump or purge him from the GOP. Will that lead to more votes to punish Trump? It’s not clear.
How many votes are required to convict Trump?
Great question! Conviction requires 2/3 of those present. If all 100 senators are present, that’s 67 senators. Assuming those two Georgians are seated, that means there are 50 senators from each party and 17 Republicans would be required.
However! Pay close attention to the rules, which require 2/3 of those present. If those two Democrats from Georgia are not yet seated, it might require 66 senators. If some number of Republicans didn’t want to vote against Trump but also didn’t want to vote to convict, they could skip the vote and change the ratio. That kind of thing has been known to happen, although not during impeachment proceedings.
What’s the historical precedent?
There have been three previous presidential impeachments, including Trump’s first. President Andrew Johnson was impeached, but survived the Senate trial by one vote after seven Republicans broke ranks with their party. Johnson did not win election after his impeachment. President Bill Clinton was impeached in his second term and was easily acquited; less than a majority of senators supported removing him from office, far from the 2/3 required. It was a similar result for Trump’s first impeachment, when only Romney joined Democrats and less than a majority of senators supported his conviction and removal from office.