Trump impeachment trial set to open

·4-min read

Donald Trump's second impeachment trial on a charge of inciting last month's deadly storming of the US Capitol is set to open with a debate over the constitutionality of trying a president after he has left office.

Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6 after a fiery speech in which the then president repeated his false claims that his November 3 election defeat was the result of widespread fraud and urging them to "fight like hell (or) you're not going to have a country anymore."

Members of the mob attacked police, sent lawmakers scrambling for safety and briefly delayed Congress in formally certifying now-President Joe Biden's victory. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.

The insurrection came after Trump spent two months challenging the election results.

The Senate trial follows only the fourth impeachment of a president in US history. But Trump is the only president to have been impeached twice by the House of Representatives and is the only ex-president to face a Senate trial.

The trial could provide clues on the direction of the Republican Party following Trump's tumultuous presidency. Sharp divisions have emerged between Trump loyalists and those hoping to move the party in a new direction.

Trump's lawyers plan to open the trial on Tuesday by questioning whether the US Constitution allows the Senate to hold an impeachment trial for a president after he has left office.

Most Senate Republicans have embraced that argument, which strongly suggests that Democrats will be unable to garner the two-thirds majority needed to convict in the 100-member Senate. Democrats and many legal scholars reject the Republicans' constitutional interpretation.

Senate Democrats are expected to prevail in Tuesday's vote on the constitutionality of the trial. An effort to block the trial on those grounds was defeated 55-45 last month.

A group of nine House Democratic impeachment managers have accused Trump of betraying the country and the Constitution by fomenting acts of violence after falsely claiming the presidential election had been "stolen" from him by vote fraud.

They wrote earlier this month that the House had impeached Trump "because he willfully incited violent insurrection against the government".

They will argue that in working to overturn his election loss, Trump emboldened a mob to break through Capitol security to stop congressional certification of Biden's victory.

The House Democrats prosecuting the case face a high bar, needing the votes of at least 17 Republicans as well as all 48 Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them to secure a conviction.

On Wednesday, the prosecution and defence will turn to the merits of the charge. They have a total of 32 hours evenly divided over no more than four days to present their cases.

The proceedings could be extended further as senators would have time to question both sides.

If House managers want to call witnesses or subpoena documents, the Senate would have to vote to allow those. Trump lawyers and House managers could question witnesses.

Trump's defence is also anchored in the argument that he was exercising his right to free speech in urging backers to "fight" to overturn the election result.

His lawyers said in a pretrial document that Trump was speaking in a "figurative sense," adding: "Notably absent from his speech was any reference to or encouragement of an insurrection, a riot, criminal action, or any acts of physical violence whatsoever."

One year ago, the then Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump on charges of obstructing Congress and abuse of power related to his pressure on the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter in 2019.

The Democratic-controlled House said Trump withheld vital military aide for Ukraine as leverage to get an investigation that Trump hoped would politically wound Biden as he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Trump dismissed the allegations as a "witch hunt" orchestrated by Democrats.

No House Republicans voted to impeach Trump in December 2019. In the Senate trial, just one Republican, Mitt Romney, voted to convict Trump on one of the charges.

But 10 House Republicans, including Representative Liz Cheney, a member of the Republican leadership, voted for impeachment last month.