Donald Trump could live to fight another day.
His chances of remaining a major player in US politics got a huge boost Tuesday (local time) as Republicans lined up to denounce his upcoming impeachment trial in the senate.
Trump is the only US president to ever be impeached twice, but the fact the trial will take place when he is no longer a sitting president initially raised some questions about the constitutional validity of the historic process.
Republican senator Rand Paul, from Kentucky, on Tuesday tabled an objection which sought to deem the trial unconstitutional and have it dismissed.
While the motion didn’t carry, senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly in favour of it, making it clear a conviction of the former president for “incitement of insurrection” appears very unlikely.
The procedural vote was defeated 55-45, with only five Republicans voting in favour of proceeding with the impeachment trial.
A two-thirds majority is required to convict in a senate impeachment trial, meaning all 50 Democrats and 17 Republicans would be required to support it. Therefore, 12 Republicans would need to have a change of heart in the coming weeks.
Impeachment trial ‘dead on arrival’
Former Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has previously suggested to reporters he was open to convicting Trump and told fellow Republicans to vote their conscience, voted in support of dismissing the trial.
While most Republicans criticised Trump shortly after the attack, many have since rushed to defend him in regard to the upcoming trial, showing the former president’s enduring sway over the conservative party.
A conviction in the senate is expected to include a vote to bar the former president from running for public office again. The Republicans appearing to rally around the former president means his grip over the party will remain strong over the coming four years as he toys with another run at the White House.
“If more than 34 Republicans vote against the constitutionality of the proceeding, the whole thing’s dead on arrival,” Paul said shortly before the vote.
Democrats “probably should rest their case and present no case at all,” he added.
The Senate just voted on my constitutional point of order.
45 Senators agreed that this sham of a “trial” is unconstitutional.
That is more than will be needed to acquit and to eventually end this partisan impeachment process.
This “trial” is dead on arrival in the Senate.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) January 26, 2021
Trial set to kick off on February 8
While questions were raised about the constitutionality of the trial, “most scholars who have closely examined the question have concluded that Congress has authority to extend the impeachment process to officials who are no longer in office,” wrote the Congressional Research Service in a legal paper earlier this month.
Reacting to the show of loyalty from a majority of senate Republicans to Trump, many in the media saw Paul’s vote as a way for Republicans to avoid an uncomfortable senate trial that will be endure in the history books. As a precedent, a failure to convict would arguably set an impossibly high bar for bipartisan conviction in any future impeachment process.
“One Washington principle holds true today: give a member of Congress a procedural off-ramp from a tough political vote and they will take it,” tweeted CNN and New Yorker journalist Susan Glasser.
Meanwhile Bruce Wolpe, a visiting fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney referred to the vote as “a test vote on impeachment”, saying Republicans were seeking “refuge from holding Trump accountable”.
The trial is set to kick off in the Senate in the week starting February 8 when the Democrats will make their case that Donald Trump is guilty of inciting deadly riots in the Capitol on January 6 when he told his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn his election defeat.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia before the latest Rand Paul vote, Mr Wolpe said the trial shouldn’t take up too much of the senate’s time as President Joe Biden tries to enact the agenda of his incoming administration.
“It doesn’t have to be a long trial. All of the senators were witnesses to the crime, you don’t have to prove anything,” he said last week.
“I think there can be a very simple and straight forward case... which centres on the Trump speech and then what happened in the Capitol. You don’t need any witnesses – all the senators are witnesses,” he told Yahoo.
Mr Wolpe, who worked alongside the Democrats during the first term of president Barrack Obama, predicted the trial shouldn’t last any more than five days.
“Trump is entitled to a defence ... [but] I think this can be a very expedited trial,” he said.
“The first Trump impeachment took 21 days, I would think this would be about a five-day exercise.”
With the trail due to start in less than two weeks, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said failing to conduct the process would amount to a “get-out-jail-free card” for those accused of wrongdoing on their way out the door.
He said there’s only one question “senators of both parties will have to answer before God and their own conscience: Is former president Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection against the United States?”
It appears few Republicans publicly agree.
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