WASHINGTON — The indictment is in. It’s time to go to trial.
Last month, the House of Representatives voted to formally impeach President Trump for the high crimes of abusing his power and obstructing Congress. Impeachment articles are like a charging document, laying out the high crimes committed by the president.
Now, the action moves to the Senate, which will conduct the third impeachment trial in American history. Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the trial. Senators will take their oath as impeachment jurors on Thursday afternoon.
Here’s everything you need to know about the next phase of Trump’s impeachment:
How does a Senate impeachment trial work?
Speaker Nancy Pelosi will pick her impeachment “managers” — a group of House members (likely all Democrats) who will serve as the prosecutors. They’ll present and argue the case for why Trump should be convicted of the high crimes for which he was impeached. Witnesses may be called depending on the trial rules approved by the Senate. The president’s own lawyers and possibly some House Republicans will serve as the defense team.
The Senate’s 100 members are the jury. They’ll hear the arguments, assess the evidence, and vote on whether to convict. Absent an immediate dismissal (which looks extremely unlikely), the process could last for several weeks to a month.
It takes a two-thirds supermajority — 67 senators if all 100 cast ballots — to convict the president. If that were to happen, Trump would be removed from office. Hello, President Mike Pence. But that’s a long shot given that at least 20 Senate Republicans would have to defy the president, cross party lines, and vote to convict. If the Senate acquits, Trump stays in office and impeachment is over.
How will impeachment actually work with Mitch McConnell calling the shots?
McConnell vowed last month to work in “total coordination” with the Trump White House during the impeachment trial. Which is … not how a real trial works. A jury doesn’t work in total coordination with someone who’s facing criminal charges.
The first test in the Senate trial is a vote on whether to outright dismiss the charges. Trump loyalists such as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) say they plan to vote for an immediate dismissal without a trial. But the Senate leadership says there is not enough support to outright dismiss the case before going to trial.
If a trial does happen, McConnell’s pledge to work in lockstep with Trump means he might not allow any witnesses to testify in the trial. At least one person has come forward to say he has relevant and potentially damning information to share if called as a witness: John Bolton, the former national security adviser who worked in the White House when Trump put a freeze on badly needed foreign aid for Ukraine in exchange for a personal favor by Ukraine’s president.
Why did Speaker Pelosi delay sending the impeachment articles to the Senate?
Pelosi waited weeks to “transmit” the articles to the Senate as a way to pressure McConnell to run a fair trial. That would include a commitment by McConnell to allow witness testimony.
Pelosi’s gambit didn’t work. She says she plans to send the articles to the Senate this week even though she received no assurances from McConnell about the Senate’s trial rules.
There is, however, one possible play Pelosi may still make. As legal scholars Neal Katyal and George Conway III explained in a recent op-ed, Pelosi could choose to transmit just one of the two impeachment articles to the Senate. She could send the second article, on Trump’s obstruction of Congress, but keep the first one that alleges Trump abused his power when he withheld Ukraine’s foreign aid in exchange for reelection help.
“Holding the first article back and letting the second go forward would be a powerful and precise response to McConnell’s unprecedented attempts to avoid committing to a real trial,” Katyal and Conway write. “Trump would be forced to undergo two impeachment trials instead of one — but that’s a fair price for him to pay for his attempts to hide evidence from the American people.”
Are there any indications Senate Republicans want a real trial?
Yes, though few. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said he wants to hear from John Bolton. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.) have made noises about wanting to hear from more witnesses but made no firm commitments to that end.
Trump himself has suggested he’s open to hearing from more witnesses, albeit the witnesses he thinks wrongly engineered the entire impeachment process. “I’m going to leave it to the Senate, but I’d like to hear from the whistleblower, I’d like to hear from shifty Schiff, I’d like to hear from Hunter Biden and Joe Biden,” Trump said last week.
What does all of this mean for the Senate Democrats running for president?
They’ll be taking a horribly timed sabbatical from the campaign trail. Cory Booker’s exit means there are four senators still in the race. Two of them are front-runners: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. One is something of a long shot in Amy Klobuchar. One is Michael Bennet.
The televised impeachment trial will give the four senators a national stage to display their chops as questioners and create tweetable viral moments. But that’s no substitute for actual campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire in the weeks before those vital contests.