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Explainer: Here's what you need to know ahead of Trump's impeachment trial

The proceedings are scheduled to begin tomorrow, just over a month since the deadly riot at the US Capitol.

dc-inauguration-of-joe-biden-as-46th-president-of-the-united-states Former US President Donald Trump Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

DONALD TRUMP’S HISTORIC second impeachment trial is set to open tomorrow in the Senate, just over a month since the deadly riot at the US Capitol in Washington.

In his unprecedented second impeachment trial, Trump is accused of fomenting the attack by his supporters on the US legislature on 6 January, forcing a halt to proceedings to certify opponent Joe Biden’s victory in the November presidential election.

Five people died as a result of the events on 6 January, including a woman shot by police inside the building and a police officer who died of injuries the next day.

Trump’s impeachment trial will be the first of a US president no longer in office, an undertaking that his Senate Republican allies argue is pointless and potentially even unconstitutional.

Democrats say they have to hold Trump to account, even as they pursue Biden’s legislative priorities, because of the gravity of what took place.

If Trump is convicted, the Senate could vote to bar him from holding office ever again, potentially upending his chances for a political comeback.

So, what exactly is Trump accused of doing?

The second impeachment of Trump rests on one article, or charge, of “incitement of insurrection” arising from the 6 January assault on Congress.

The charge, set by the House of Representatives, was formally submitted to the Senate on 25 January.

It grows from Trump’s two-month campaign to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 3 November presidential election, alleging without evidence that it was based on mass fraud.

On 6 January, following a rousing speech by Trump near the White House, thousands of his followers marched to the US Capitol and forced their way inside, sending lawmakers fleeing and halting the joint House-Senate session held to certify Biden’s victory.

ny-pro-trump-riot-in-washington-dc Rioters clashing with police trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors in Washington, DC Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The impeachment charge says that, in the months before, Trump “repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the presidential election results were the result of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people or certified by state or federal officials.”

Then on 6 January, it says, Trump made statements “that in context, encouraged – and foreseeably resulted in – lawless action at the Capitol.”

Trump “incited” the crowd to halt the certification of Biden’s victory, and to menace the vice president, members of Congress and law enforcement officers, resulting in injuries and deaths, the charge says.

It also places the charge in the context of Trump’s “prior efforts to subvert and obstruct” Biden’s victory.

It cites a threat Trump made to Georgia’s secretary of state in a 2 January phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn the election result in the state, which went for Biden.

“In all this, President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of government,” the charge says.

“He threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch of government.”

“He thereby betrayed his trust as president,” damaging the country.

ny-pro-trump-supporters-breach-the-capitol-building Pro-Trump supports storming the US Capitol on 6 January Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

How likely is Trump to be convicted?

Firstly, the mob riot itself is beyond dispute. US networks covered the chaos live, and thousands of photographs and video clips from the scene made their way into the world’s news media.

Critics argue that Trump’s role was such that he violated his oath of office by inciting his supporters to launch the attack.

Trump and his allies, however, argue that the trial itself is unconstitutional, saying the Senate and convict and remove from office a current president but not a private citizen.

The claim of unconstitutionality could allow the defence team and Republican senators to avoid having to defend the fiery tweets and diatribes by Trump in the run-up to the violence.

Convicting Trump would require the vote of more than two-thirds of the senators, meaning 17 Republicans would need to break ranks and join all 50 Democrats. This is seen as near impossible.

Democrats argue it is not only about winning conviction, but holding the former president accountable for his actions, even though he is out of office.

dc-confirmation-hearing-to-be-secretary-of-education Senator Rand Paul Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Many Republicans, meanwhile, have rallied around Trump in recent weeks, arguing his comments do not make him responsible for the violence.

They question the legitimacy of even conducting a trial of someone no longer in office.

Yesterday, Republican Senator Roger Wicker described Trump’s impeachment trial as a “meaningless messaging partisan exercise”.

Republican Senator Rand Paul called the proceedings a farce with “zero chance of conviction” and described Trump’s language and rally words as “figurative” speech.

Senators were sworn in as jurors late last month, shortly after Biden was inaugurated, but the trial proceedings were delayed as Democrats focused on confirming the new president’s initial cabinet picks and Republicans sought to put as much distance as possible from the bloody riot.

At the time, Paul forced a vote to set aside the trial as unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office, drawing 44 other Republicans to his argument.

A prominent conservative lawyer, Charles Cooper, rejects that view, writing in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that the constitution permits the Senate to try an ex-official, a significant counterpoint to that of Republican senators who have looked towards acquittal by advancing constitutional claims.

dc-united-states-senator-lindsey-graham-republican-of-south-carolina-holds-a-press-conference-at-the-u-s-capitol Senator Lindsey Graham talking to reporters during a press conference at the US Capitol Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s ardent defenders, said he believes Trump’s actions were wrong and “he’s going to have a place in history for all of this”, but insisted it is not the Senate’s job to judge.

“It’s not a question of how the trial ends, it’s a question of when it ends,” Graham said.

“Republicans are going to view this as an unconstitutional exercise, and the only question is, will they call witnesses, how long does the trial take? But the outcome is really not in doubt.”

The 45 votes in favour of Paul’s measure suggested the near impossibility of reaching a conviction in a Senate where Democrats hold 50 seats but a two-thirds vote – or 67 senators – would be needed to convict Trump.

Only five Republican senators joined with Democrats to reject Paul’s motion: Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Pat Toomey.

What has Trump said about the proceedings?

Not much. Holed up at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, the former president has been silenced on social media by Twitter without public comments since leaving the White House.

He has also refused to testify at the impeachment trial after being called by House prosecutors to give evidence.

dc-inauguration-of-joe-biden-as-46th-president-of-the-united-states Donald Trump waves to his supporters from the presidential motorcade on the way to Mar-a-Lago Club on 20 January Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

His lawyers have ridiculed the request to answer questions over the attack on the US Capitol as a “public relations stunt”.

“Your letter only confirms what is known to everyone: you cannot prove your allegations” against Trump, attorneys Bruce Castor and David Schoen said in their reply.

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While the attorneys did not say whether he would testify, a senior advisor to Trump, Jason Miller, said flatly that he would not.

“The president will not testify in an unconstitutional proceeding,” Miller told AFP.

Earlier this month, Trump announced a new impeachment legal defence team after it was revealed he had parted ways with an earlier set of lawyers. 

What will happen once the trial begins?

Details of the proceedings are still being negotiated by the Senate leaders, with the duration of opening arguments, senators’ questions and deliberations all up for debate.

So far, it appears there will be few witnesses called, as the prosecutors and defence lawyers speak directly to senators who have been sworn to deliver “impartial justice” as jurors.

Most are also witnesses to the siege, having fled for safety that day as the rioters broke into the Capitol and temporarily halted the electoral count certifying Biden’s victory.

impeachment-managers House impeachment manager Adam Schiff in Statuary Hall before addressing the media on the impeachment trial Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

With Trump declining to testify, House managers prosecuting the case are expected to rely on the trove of videos from the siege, along with Trump’s incendiary rhetoric refusing to concede the election, to make their case.

His new defence team has said it plans to counter with its own cache of videos of Democratic politicians making fiery speeches.

“We have the unusual circumstance where on the very first day of the trial, when those managers walk on the floor of the Senate, there will already be over 100 witnesses present,” said Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who led Trump’s first impeachment.

“Whether you need additional witnesses will be a strategic call.”

As noted, the trial will begin tomorrow, but it remains unclear what time the proceedings will kick off at.

Trump is the first president to be twice impeached, and the only one to face trial after leaving the White House.

Includes reporting by Press Association and © – AFP 2021

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