How The Senate Impeachment Trial Will Work

Dec 31, 2019
Originally published on January 20, 2020 10:46 pm

President Trump's fate is now in the hands of the Senate. The House of Representatives has impeached the president, and it is up to senators to determine whether he will be removed from office.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., released a resolution outlining the rules of the Senate trial on Monday. The Senate is voting on the proposal Tuesday; it is expected to pass, given the Republican's majority.

It has been more than a month since the House voted to impeach Trump, charging him with abusing his power and obstructing Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had been holding off on transmitting the articles to the Senate, essentially delaying the trial, because she wanted details on how the trial would work.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs the articles of impeachment against President Trump at the Rayburn Room on Capitol Hill Jan. 15.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

She ultimately relented without any further information from McConnell, naming House impeachment managers to serve as the prosecution team on Jan. 15.

The next day, Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in to preside over the trial. He then administered the oath to senators, who swore to render "impartial justice" as jurors.

Here is more about the various roles and how the trial will play out.


Setting The Ground Rules

Timing: Senate will vote on organizing resolution on Jan. 21

The details of a Senate impeachment trial are generally up for negotiation, but that negotiation essentially ended when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced he had the votes to move ahead with a resolution outlining the process without Democrats. That is expected on Tuesday.

McConnell's plan has two main phases: first, opening arguments and questioning. The second stage begins with debate on whether to call witnesses and introduce more evidence.


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had been pushing for a deal up front that would include testimony from witnesses, including Trump administration officials.

It takes only 51 votes to approve the rules, though, so McConnell can rely on his majority to begin the trial without such a deal. Schumer has been unable to get four Senate Republicans to break with McConnell on Democrats' demands for witnesses.

The Trial

Timing: begins on Jan. 22

Once the trial begins, there are clear rules for each of the key players. U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts presides. Senators do not do the talking; they can only submit written questions.

Impeachment managers from the House will represent the Democrats' argument. The president's defense includes White House counsel, outside attorneys and a number of Republican members of the House. It is the first time in the inquiry that the White House is making its case on the record. The White House declined to participate in the Democratic-led House proceedings, which Trump considered a "sham."

Opening arguments begin Wednesday at 1 p.m. Each side gets up to 24 hours over two days to make their case.

Then, senators will have 16 hours to ask questions in the chamber, followed by two hours of arguments each by the House impeachment managers and the president's lawyers.


Then comes the debate on whether to subpoena witnesses or introduce new documents.

This is where moderate Republicans could throw wrenches into the leadership's plans, if enough of them decide they want to hear additional testimony.

Once again, these procedural votes require only a majority. A 50-50 tie is considered a failure to pass because Vice President Pence cannot cast the deciding vote as he would (and has) in other cases. The chief justice is unlikely to want to cast a deciding vote as he presides over the trial, seeking to maintain impartiality.

The rules also note that any witness must be deposed before testifying.

The Final Vote

Timing: TBD

After the trial, the Senate votes on whether to convict or acquit the president on each article of impeachment. Convicting Trump and therefore removing him from office requires 67 votes. That would mean 20 Republicans would have to join Democrats in the effort — a highly unlikely prospect.

Acquitting Trump of the charges or dismissing the charges, however, takes only 51 votes.


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Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images (Mitch McConnell); Paul Morigi/Getty Images (Susan Collins); Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (Lisa Murkowski and John Roberts); Mark Wilson/Getty Images (Cory Gardner, Joe Manchin, Martha McSally and Chuck Schumer); Alex Wong/Getty Images (Doug Jones and Mitt Romney)

This story originally published on Dec. 31, 2019.

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