Democrats are hoping for a Hail Mary act to persuade enough Senate Republicans to convict Donald Trump in his historic second impeachment trial and vanquish him from American politics.
On the eve of proceedings, those prosecuting the case say Trump must be convicted of the “most grievous constitutional crime” even though he’s now gone from the White House.
Trump’s defence team, meanwhile, is ramping up its attack on the constitutional validity of the trial.
In filings on Monday (local time), lawyers for the former president lobbed a wide-ranging attack against the House case calling it “selfish” and dismissing the trial as “political theatre” – making the case on the same Senate floor that was invaded by the unruly mob of Trump supporters last month.
Security at the US Capitol building is on high alert for the Trump impeachment trial with National Guard troops still patrolling the area, while Democratic impeachment managers have been given a beefed-up security detail.
Trump is the first president to face charges after leaving office and the first to twice be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours.
House impeachment managers filed their own document on Monday in response to Trump’s legal team, asserting Trump had “betrayed the American people” and there is no valid excuse or defence.
‘Hit them in the gut’: Democrats long shot at conviction
Holed up at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, Trump has declined a request to testify, likely a realisation that his testimony would be a “game-changer” and incriminate him, says former US federal prosecutor and political commentator Renato Mariotti.
Writing in Politico, he argued that witness testimony might be the only way Republicans could be swayed into convicting Trump. Such testimony would need to deliver a “gut punch” and push public opinion further against the former president’s actions.
“Even a handful of witnesses who are willing to testify against Trump could make a huge difference,” he said.
Out of 50 Republicans in the Senate, 17 would be required to convict Trump.
He cited as an example the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who recorded a phone call with Trump during which the then president pressured him to find extra votes during a state recount.
“Republican senators might identify with a Republican officeholder who was put in a horrible situation by Trump,” Mariotti wrote.
“Testimony from a victim of the attack could be even more powerful,” he said, citing Senators who barricaded themselves inside their office, or the 140 officers who were injured during the mayhem.
“Generally speaking, jurors don't decide to convict a defendant based on intellectual arguments and logical deduction. If Republican senators are making intellectual calculations, they might be calculating the impact of their vote on donors and constituents back home.
“So House managers need to hit them in their gut, not their head. A couple of carefully chosen witnesses could do that.”
Conservative lawyer and anti-Trump campaigner, George Conway, agreed, saying in an interview with CNN on Monday Democrats should call witnesses to persuade the Senate jurors.
“This is supposed to be a trial. By definition trials have witnesses ... the Senate shouldn't repeat the mistake it made a year ago,” he said, referring to Trump’s first impeachment trial.
However at this point no witnesses are expected to be called, with Democrats instead relying on graphic videos of the violent clashes on January 6.
The Democrats also want a quick trial as not to disrupt usual Senate business during Biden’s early days in office. Senior Republican Lindsey Graham has also threatened to drag out the trial if Democrats call witnesses.
Trial will act as ‘difficult national conversation’
The trial will begin on Tuesday (local time) with a debate and vote on whether it’s constitutionally permissible to prosecute the former president, an argument that could resonate with Republicans keen on voting to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behaviour.
Under an agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the opening arguments would begin on Wednesday at noon, with up to 16 hours per side for presentations.
The trial will break Friday evening for the Jewish Sabbath at the request of Trump’s defence team. The proceedings will resume on Sunday.
“In trying to make sense of a second Trump trial, the public should keep in mind that Donald Trump was the first president ever to refuse to accept his defeat,” said Timothy Naftali, a clinical associate professor at New York University and an expert on Richard Nixon’s impeachment saga.
“This trial is one way of having that difficult national conversation about the difference between dissent and insurrection,” he told the Associated Press.
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