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Explainer: Here's what you need to know as Trump's impeachment trial gets under way

A phone call to the Ukrainian president and some withheld funding sparked a chain of events leading to the US Senate floor this week.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: USA TODAY/SIPA USA/PA Images

THIS WEEK, THE US Senate will begin hearing the impeachment trial against US President Donald Trump.

For only the third time, a sitting president will face an impeachment trial that could – but probably won’t – see him removed from office. 

The stage is set for a dramatic few weeks on the Senate floor as partisan politics comes to the fore with a team of Democrats prosecuting the case against Trump and a majority Republican Senate likely to vote it down. 

One side is saying the president “is threatening to cheat in the next election”. The other is saying Trump is being impeached “for a non-crime for events that never occurred”. 

So what is Trump accused of doing?

Trump has been charged with two articles of impeachment. The first is abuse of power. The second is obstruction of Congress.

It all relates to a phone call between the US President and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky last July.

During the conversation, Trump and Zelensky discussed Joe Biden, the former vice president who is seeking the Democratic nomination for this year’s presidential election.

If Biden is successful, he’ll be going head-to-head with Trump to try to win the White House.

Trump is said to have asked Ukraine to look into the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter, who previously served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings.

He suggested that Zelensky should work with the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the Attorney General William Barr to investigate Biden and his son. 

Shortly before this phone call, the White House had made the decision to withhold $400 million worth of military aid to Ukraine.

Congress had previously passed legislation appropriating this money to Ukraine, as a way to provide a boost to the country’s national security efforts amid a military conflict with Russia that began in 2014.

Trump is accused of abusing his power for political gain by withholding the money until Ukraine initiated an investigation against Biden. 

Under US law, it’s a crime to solicit or accept the assistance of a foreign government in an election. 

How did we get here?

This affair came to light in September after a whistleblower lodged a complaint about the phone call. 

The House of Representatives – the lower house of Congress where Democrats are in the majority – initiated an investigation on 9 September. That soon progressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing there would be a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. 

At the time, Trump denounced any investigation into his alleged wrongdoing as a “witch hunt” and has continued to describe the impeachment proceedings in the same terms.

Initially, an impeachment resolution was submitted to the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee can review the evidence it receives, or carry out an investigation itself.

If the evidence is strong enough, the committee crafts articles of impeachment — criminal charges — and sends them to the full House.

The House can pass the articles by a simple majority vote, “impeaching” the president.

On 10 December, the judiciary committee unveiled the two articles of impeachment against Trump – the abuse of power and the obstruction of Congress.

In outlining the case for impeaching him, a 658-page report claimed that Trump’s conduct was “unlike anything this nation has ever seen”

“No one, not even the president is above the law,” judiciary chair Jerry Nadler said.

On 19 December, the House of Representatives voted 230 to 197 to impeach the president. 

For Trump to be removed from office, however, the Senate also has to vote to impeach him.

And, for that to happen, two-thirds of Senators would have to vote in favour of impeachment. Given the Republicans have a majority in the Senate, this looks unlikely to happen. 

So what can we expect over the next few weeks?

The impeachment trial gets underway at 6 pm Irish time tomorrow. After that it’ll run six days a week, starting at 6 pm our time every day and running until about 10 or 11 pm.

The exact schedule is not yet clear, but we can expect at least a few days of opening arguments from both sides.

Those leading the case – all Democrats – against Trump include House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff and judiciary committee chairman Jerry Nadler. 

Trump’s team is led by White House legal counsel Pat Cipollone and includes celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Clinton special prosecutor Ken Starr.

The trial will have a judge – none other than Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts – but his exact role is unclear.

All Senators will effectively serve as the jury in the trial. But, unlike a normal trial, they’re not impassive observers. They’ll be able to pass motions and cast the deciding vote. They can also submit questions to witnesses and be called as witnesses themselves.

All the evidence from the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry will be considered at this trial in the Senate. 

If any new evidence was to be submitted, 51 Senators would have to vote in favour of it being admitted.

And, as mentioned, when the trial comes to an end Senators will vote with 67 of the 100 Senators needing to vote against Trump for him to be impeached.

If Trump were convicted on either of the two articles against him, he would automatically be removed from office.

The trial itself will be an opportunity for Democrats and Republican to trade blows in the usual partisan manner, and for Trump to attack opponents for ordering the trial in the first place.

Yesterday, for example, he tweeted “what a disgrace this impeachment scam is for our great country”.

It’s expected that the trial will last at least two weeks with Trump and the Republicans believed to be keen to get it done as quickly as possible. 

With reporting from the Associated Press

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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