Historic second impeachment trial for Donald Trump gets underway in U.S. Senate

·4 min read

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's historic and unprecedented second impeachment trial got underway Tuesday in the very legislative chamber desecrated by the angry mob he's accused of inciting.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, empowered to preside over the Senate in the absence of Vice-President Kamala Harris, gavelled the trial into session before senators agreed to the rules by an 89-11 margin.

With that, lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin began four hours of debate by setting up the difference between the Democratic argument and that of Trump's lawyers.

"Our case is based on cold, hard facts — it's all about the facts," Raskin said.

Trump's defence team, on the other hand, wants "to try to stop the Senate from hearing the facts of this case. They want to call the trial over before any evidence is even introduced."

To do so, Raskin argued, would codify a "January exception," giving every sitting president free licence to do what they like in the final weeks of their term in office, without fear of repercussions.

"It's an invitation to the president to take his best shot at anything he may want to do on his way out the door, including using violent means to lock that door — to hang on to the Oval Office at all costs."

Raskin showed a chilling video compilation from Jan. 6, the day Trump supporters swarmed Capitol Hill and violently disrupted the Senate's efforts to certify Joe Biden's election win.

Now-infamous footage of Trump's fateful speech outside the White House — "if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he said — and the ensuing melee was interlaced with footage from inside the building as the danger dawned on the sitting senators.

"We are listening to Trump — your boss," one member of the mob is heard screaming at a police officer as a group of supporters tries to push past a blockade.

The weeks and months that follow a November presidential election are precisely when the rules governing presidential conduct are at a premium, Raskin argued.

"That's when we need them the most, because that's when elections get attacked."

Tuesday was expected to be dominated by procedural debate as Trump's lawyers try to argue that the constitution does not allow a former president to be convicted on an article of impeachment.

Trump is not just the only U.S. president to be impeached twice, but he's also the only one ever to stand trial in the Senate after relinquishing office.

Trump's lawyers are simply wrong, Democrats insist — an opinion shared by prominent conservative lawyer Chuck Cooper in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Conviction in the Senate would be followed by a second vote on whether to prohibit Trump from seeking the presidency again — a constitutional wrinkle that applies only to "former officers," thereby undermining Trump's own defence strategy, Cooper wrote.

However, since conviction requires a two-thirds vote in a Senate evenly split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, it's an outcome that faces long odds.

And when it comes to impeaching Trump, Americans seem to be just as divided as the Senate, a new poll suggests.

The online Léger poll, conducted last month for the Association for Canadian Studies, found 49 per cent of U.S. respondents supported impeachment.

Forty per cent said they opposed it, while 11 per cent said they didn't know.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, urged both sides Tuesday to pay close attention to the evidence. And he urged the chamber not to lose sight of the job at hand.

"It's our solemn constitutional duty to conduct a fair and honest impeachment trial of the charges against former president Trump — the gravest charges ever brought against a president of the United States in American history," Schumer said.

Some of the evidence will be heard for the first time, Schumer said earlier in the day.

Republicans have tried to argue that at a time of such division, political rancour and social tension in the U.S., an impeachment trial would do more harm than good.

"I particularly urge my Republican colleagues, despite the pressure on them, to pay very real attention to the evidence here because it's very, very serious," Schumer said.

"Every senator, Democrat and Republican, has to approach this trial with the gravity it deserves."

Of the U.S. respondents to the poll, 54 per cent said they would like to see Trump banned from a 2024 run, while 39 per cent said he should be allowed to seek the job again.

Online polls cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press