Trump’s Impeachment Trial in Limbo as Pelosi, McConnell Remain Silent

A day after the House impeached President Donald Trump for a second time there is still little clarity on when his trial would take place or what form it would take.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who signed the single article of impeachment Wednesday night, hasn’t said anything about her schedule for transmitting it to the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, also have been publicly silent about how the Senate, which will be in nominal Democratic control after Inauguration Day, will be handling the unprecedented case of trying a president on impeachment charges after he leaves office.

How all that plays out will have major implications for President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to be sworn-in six days from now. A Senate trial for Trump, which could begin no sooner than Jan. 20, risks delaying confirmation of Biden’s cabinet nominees and early legislative initiatives.

Also hanging in balance is the change of Senate control, as Vice President Kamala Harris is replaced in the chamber by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff await state certification of their victories in Georgia’s runoff election.

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The nine House Democrats who Pelosi appointed as impeachment managers to prosecute the case declined on Thursday to discuss what, if anything, they know about the timing for sending the article to the Senate. Pelosi will face questions about her strategy at her regularly scheduled news conference on Friday.

Democratic Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, one of the impeachment managers, told reporters Thursday that she didn’t know whether the Senate trial might last days, or weeks.

“It’s one article of impeachment and, I mean, it’s like, you see the president on TV inciting people to come up and try to stop the counting,” DeGette said. “So, it’s pretty easy facts, but on the other hand, there were a lot of things that happened.”

Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, is continuing to press for delaying the trial to allow Biden time to put his administration together.

But Representative Ted Lieu of California, a co-sponsor of the impeachment article and one of the House managers, said Thursday that the Senate should convene in an emergency session now and “have the trial as soon as possible.”

“They could have a trial on Friday,” Lieu said on MSNBC. “They could have it next Monday. So we’re calling for Senator McConnell to bring the Senate in so we can have the trial.”

One House official said the risk of delaying a trial, as Clyburn suggests, is that it dilutes the argument for urgent action against Trump over his actions stoking the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. It also may make it even less likely that 17 Republicans would join with Democrats to get the two-thirds vote necessary for conviction, according to the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Dividing Time

Biden made a plea for the Senate to divide its time between Trump’s trial and regular business, but McConnell hasn’t responded publicly and officials were still reviewing whether and how the chamber could do that.

Tom Daschle, who was the Democratic leader in 2001, the last time the Senate was spit 50-50, said starting the trial sooner rather than later and having the Senate split its time “would be the most logical and pragmatic” approach.

Delaying the trial would risk making it harder to forge legislative agreements, he said. “The longer it hangs out there, the more political it becomes and the more divisive it could be.” Daschle said.

After Trump’s first impeachment on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Dec. 18, 2019, the House didn’t transmit the articles until Jan. 15, 2020, a span of 27 days. That trial began Jan. 16, 2020. But opening arguments didn’t start until six days later as the Senate wrangled over witnesses and evidence. It concluded Feb. 5 with the president’s acquittal, a span of almost three weeks.

During the trial, House impeachment managers and the president’s defense each were given 24 hours of floor time spread over three days to make their arguments. Another 16 hours of time was given for senators to ask questions.

Much about Trump’s present impeachment case is unprecedented.

Presiding Officer

When a sitting president is tried by the Senate, the Constitution says the chief justice presides, but Trump will be out of power. McConnell, in a memo to GOP senators, said it was unclear whether Chief Justice John Roberts would preside.

“The chief justice has no comment,” Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in an email when asked if Roberts would come to the Senate to hold the gavel.

If he doesn’t, Harris likely would be the presiding officer, which would give Democrats an edge in setting trial procedures in a 50-50 chamber.

The procedures for an impeachment trial could be addressed in the Senate organizing resolution, Daschle said. That resolution can be passed by a majority vote though it would be better to come as close as possible to unanimous consent, he said.

“The preference is getting unanimous consent,” he said, but “the organizational resolution only requires a majority.”

Whether Trump would be convicted could turn on what McConnell does. He has told associates he believes the president committed impeachable offenses, two people familiar with the matter said. But he told Senate Republicans in a Wednesday note that he hasn’t decided if he would vote to convict.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said in a statement on Thursday that the House was right to impeach Trump. She was highly critical of the president and his role in last week’s riot, saying “President Trump’s words incited violence, which led to the injury and deaths of Americans – including a Capitol Police officer – the desecration of the Capitol, and briefly interfered with the government’s ability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.”

While she said Trump’s actions “cannot go without consequence” Murkowski added that she isn’t prepared to say before the trial whether she would vote to convict him.

Aside from the trial, Democrats will get more latitude in determining the course of events after Jan. 20. The Senate will be split 50-50, but Democrats will have control with Harris providing the tie-breaking vote.

Georgia officials expect to certify the victories by Warnock and Ossoff by inauguration day, though it’s still not clear how quickly they will be seated.

Padilla was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to take Harris’s seat in the Senate. A person familiar with the discussions on when he’ll join the Senate said that the plan calls for Padilla to be sworn in after Biden and Harris take the oath of office on Inauguration Day.

— With assistance by Jeffrey Taylor, Steven T. Dennis, and Greg Stohr

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