WASHINGTON – It’s not just President Donald Trump’s political future at stake during the Senate impeachment trial that gets under way Tuesday.
The fortunes and reputations of party leaders, the House prosecutors and Congress as an institution are also on the line. Though almost no one expects Trump to be found guilty and removed from office, how the third impeachment trial of a president in U.S. history is conducted over the next few weeks could shape legacies for years to come.
“In some ways, the Senate is on trial as well as President Trump,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “And the ability of the United States Senate to function in a reasonably systematic and sensible way in this impeachment is really a test of (its) institutional vitality at a time when many people quite rightly have called its effectiveness into question.”
The House impeached the president last month on two articles: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The allegations stem from the administration’s withholding of nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid last year from Ukraine to pressure the foreign ally to investigate one of Trump’s political rivals, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Those articles, or charges, were delivered to the Senate last week. All 100 senators, serving as jurors, took an oath to carry out “impartial justice” Thursday after they were sworn in during a somber ceremony by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the trial.
Republicans hold a majority in the Senate with 53 seats, so the trial is likely to end in Trump’s acquittal. It would take 67 votes to find him guilty and remove him from office.
The larger question is how a body once known for its deliberate nature and civility will emerge from the intensely political exercise of an impeachment trial.
Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the proceedings are unlikely to do much to boost public faith in the Senate.
“There’s going to be a sense of drama. We’ll see a very solemn institution, and that might improve the impression of the Senate that some people have,” he said. “But the outcome being a foregone conclusion – and everyone knowing it – it seems unlikely that the Senate’s reputation for being partisan is going to be affected much. It’s already pretty sour, and it probably will not improve.”
When the Senate trial convenes Tuesday at 1 p.m., members will debate the rules for the proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has proposed beginning opening arguments Wednesday. Each side would have 24 hours to present its argument over two days, meaning sessions would need to late into the night. Under his proposal, the debate over whether to subpoena witnesses or documents would come after the opening arguments and questions.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized the proposal, saying it wouldn’t automatically allow House Democrats to admit their evidence into the record and would have arguments continue into “the wee hours of the night” to hide information from the American people.
One of the most contentious issues is whether witnesses will be called and, if so, who.
A small group of moderate GOP senators led by Susan Collins of Maine pushed to include witnesses over McConnell’s objections. Trump’s allies call for the quick trial and acquittal the president wants.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a political science professor at George Washington University, said McConnell will have to navigate the tensions between the two wings of his party.
“He has a challenge of keeping (at least) 51 Republicans on the same page,” she said.
Opportunities, pitfalls for House managers
Despite the lack of mystery surrounding the trial’s conclusion, the House lawmakers who will prosecute the case against Trump have a lot riding on their performance.
The impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1999 helped elevate then-House manager Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who won election to the Senate and ran for president in 2016. Another manager, Asa Hutchinson, became governor of Arkansas.
Prosecutors’ roles:What is an impeachment manager, and what do they do?
Rep. James Rogan, R-Calif., was not as fortunate.
He lost the next year in a race largely defined by his role as an impeachment manager. The Democrat who defeated him: Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who led the Democrats’ investigation into Trump.
Trump and congressional Republicans criticized Schiff’s handling of the impeachment process in the House, accusing him of being unfair to the president. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose him to lead the inquiry, and Democrats praised him as a steady hand during the tumultuous process.
Smith said his rising stature in the party makes him a likely successor to Sen. Dianne Feinstein when she retires. Binder said it’s far too early to say how history will treat Schiff and his fellow prosecutors.
“Some go on to great careers and some do not,” she said. “I don’t know if this is a make-or-break moment for any of these House managers.”
Roberts will try to avoid partisan fray
Few have as much to lose as Roberts, who fiercely guards the high court as a bastion of thoughtful, nonpartisan debate.
Presiding over the impeachment trial as the Constitution requires means he’ll oversee the most partisan of exercises.
He may be asked to decide issues that will shape the contours of the trial: Will there be witnesses, and if so, which ones? Will documents be introduced into evidence? What happens if Republicans in the majority try to end the trial prematurely? What if Democrats want to issue subpoenas?
Will Roberts bang his hourglass-shaped ivory gavel, issue substantive rulings, perhaps even break tie votes?
From indications and predictions, the answer is: Not if he can help it.
“This is his most prominent chance on the national stage to show his commitment to being a fair, neutral arbiter,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “Chief Justice Roberts cares more than anything about the nonpartisan, institutional legitimacy of the courts.”
Smith said he expects Roberts to try to keep his role as small as possible, especially given rules that allow the Senate to resolve many disputes without involving the presiding officer.
“On most questions, he can refuse to rule and give the question directly to the Senate to decide. So one thing we might look for is the extent to which he chooses to do that,” Smith said. “Knowing that he doesn’t want to get into a partisan fight, we might expect him to simply stay out if it, be a presiding officer and let the Senate decide questions.”
‘Tough votes for anyone’
If there’s going to be a surprise, it’s likely to come from a Republican senator since the GOP is in the majority and running the trial, experts said.
If one or more senators defy their party, their votes would become an integral part of their legacy: hailed by Democrats and other Trump opponents as profiles in courage; reviled by Republicans as turncoats.
Could it be Collins who faces a tough reelection in November and may want to show voters an independent streak? Or Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the former presidential nominee who called the president’s pressure campaign on Ukraine “appalling” but largely backs his policy agenda? Perhaps Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, whose decision not to seek reelection could free him from worrying about voter wrath back home?
The assemblage of Senate Republicans includes several GOP senators who either ran against Trump in 2016, such as Graham, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, or others who did not run but denounced his nomination.
Binder said it’s unlikely any of the GOP senators will break ranks and vote for Trump’s removal.
“It’s just hard to see when they have all the examples of Republicans who have stood up to Trump and they’re not in the Senate anymore,” Binder said. “Politicians value their reputations, and being attacked by the president of your party when your party’s in lockstep seemingly behind the president, those are tough votes for anyone.”
Democratic senators will face similar pressure to stay in line, knowing that a vote to support acquittal will be hailed by Trump as bipartisan exoneration.
Baker said the Senate’s opportunity for redemption doesn’t mean it has to convict Trump.
“They simply have to conduct a trial in which there are witnesses heard … and also look at documents which have been previously blocked. Process is everything,” he said. If “it simply becomes a rhetorical battle between Democrats and Republicans, then it’s just going to continue with this downward spiral to institutional irrelevance.”
Contributing: Richard Wolf and Bart Jansen