Politics

What's subsequent for Trump's Senate impeachment?

After the House of Representatives indict President Donald Trump a second time, the ball is in the court of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But despite the recent leaks that McConnell welcomes this impeachment to remove Trump from the GOP, he will not reconvene the Senate early to get Trump's trial started quickly, his press secretary said Wednesday. Instead, the process could begin no earlier than January 19, when the Senate had previously planned to resume work. And McConnell said in a letter that he has not yet made a final decision as to whether he will vote to condemn Trump.

McConnell's days as Senate majority leader are numbered. Sometime in the next two weeks, Georgia will certify Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff's special election victories, and split the Senate between Democrats and Republicans between 50 and 50 when they are sworn in. This and the swearing-in of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will give the Democrats a majority and make Senator Chuck Schumer the leader of the Chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, will soon become Senate Minority Leader, making Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, right, the new Majority Leader. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

However, this means that McConnell will be the majority leader for at least another week. And there was at least some thought that he could reconvene the Senate and begin Trump's trial this Friday, January 15, Reuters reported.

But in the end, he decided not to – meaning most of Trump's trial will take place after Joe Biden is sworn in as president.

McConnell licked that he wanted impeachment. But now he's not taking quick action.

Although McConnell made the decision to pamper Trump for several weeks when he contested the November election, he never directly endorsed the effort. He recognized Joe Biden as president-elect after the electoral college voted in mid-December and delivered a speech on Jan. 6 defending the peaceful transfer of power – only to see a pro-Trump mob run the Capitol shortly afterwards stormed.

Although McConnell made it clear that he was dissatisfied with what was going on (the Washington Post reported he had no plans to speak to Trump again), the F├╝hrer held his cards close to his waist and let the House Democrats take the lead, to decide how to try to blame Trump.

McConnell, however, did give a glimpse of his thinking about the timing of impeachment proceedings. Last week he took the position that he could not reconvene the Senate to begin a trial until January 19, unless the Senators unanimously agreed. The implicit assumption was that a Republican Senator allied with Trump would withhold such an agreement so that McConnell could not reconvene the Senate early.

On Monday, however, Schumer pointed out that McConnell wrongly needed the approval of every Senator – that under Senate rules, if he and McConnell agree, there is a way that the Senate can be convened early in an emergency.

The day after Schumer's statement, as the House impeachment process progressed on Tuesday, reporters from several major media outlets received anonymous news that McConnell believed Trump had committed criminal acts and welcomed the impeachment process.

The idea that McConnell was apparently on board with impeachment proceedings rocked the political world and made Trump's conviction of two-thirds of the Senate seem a realistic prospect for the first time. It also raised Democrats' hopes that McConnell would agree to Schumer's request to reconvene the Senate and begin the process quickly – Reuters reported that GOP leaders were considering starting this Friday.

However, by early Wednesday afternoon, McConnell threw cold water on those hopes.

Seung Min Kim of the Washington Post reported that McConnell had decided not to reconvene the Senate early after all. That would mean the Senate could not receive impeachment articles from the House of Representatives until January 19, the day before the inauguration of Biden and Harris at the earliest. It would also essentially pose the problem of the process for Schumer to deal with, as Warnock and Ossoff are closer to being sworn in (however, Georgia's deadline for confirmation of results, which must be met before any swearing in, is December 22nd). January the state could do it a little earlier).

Trump's impeachment proceedings will emerge at the start of Biden's presidency

Under the Constitution, a federal civil servant convicted in impeachment proceedings can receive two sentences – impeachment and disqualification from future office. The first of these will obviously no longer be relevant once Biden is sworn in, but the second will remain, given Trump's deliberations about another presidential election in 2024.

So impeachment proceedings against former President Trump would be a real problem. But there would also be questions as to whether such a process against a former civil servant is constitutional. There is a precedent for a former civil servant's attempt – in 1876 the Senate tried War Secretary William Belknap after his resignation. But the constitution isn't explicit and Trump would certainly try to challenge such a process in court.

President Trump leaves Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland January 12. Almond Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

Still, the Senate seems ready to hold a trial. And McConnell's decision not to convene the Senate until the day before Biden's inauguration means that Schumers and Democrats will likely decide how that process will be carried out – specifically, whether to call witnesses and how long to spend on it.

One complication here is that soon-to-be President Joe Biden really wants the Senate to spend some time validating his candidates for executive and moving its legislative agenda forward so he can run the government. Trump's trial would also likely get off to a polarizing start to a presidency that Biden had hoped to unite, but given Trump's behavior, it's unlikely to be avoidable at this point.

Although the Senate recently suspended voting on other business while an impeachment process is in progress, Biden said yesterday he was wondering if the Senate could only spend half of each day on impeachment and the other half on other matters. (His team asks the Senate MP whether this is permissible.)

It is still unclear whether Trump's belief is a realistic possibility

Two-thirds of the senators who vote in favor would be necessary to actually convict Trump of impeachment. Once Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in, there will be 50 Democrats in the Senate – which means 17 Republicans would have to join in to get the 67 votes required for a conviction.

How likely is that?

On one hand, there's McConnell's privately voiced belief that Trump has committed criminal acts – though he was rather temperamental in a letter to Republican Senators on Wednesday, writing that he hadn't made a final decision on how he would vote, and that he will consider the evidence.

The fact that Trump could run again in 2024 if not convicted is a special incentive for action among Democrats and some Republicans. In fact, Trump-backing senators who plan to run for president themselves in 2024 would likely be thrilled if Trump couldn't run against them, although they would certainly pretend they were outraged that it was happening. If McConnell, who has just been re-elected and will not face another elementary school until 2026, wants to try to remove Trump from the party, now would be the right time to do so.

On the other hand, the widespread Republican enthusiasm for Trump hasn't waned much. And despite some high profile flaws in the House of Representatives, he has retained the support of the vast majority of the GOP conference – only 10 out of 211 House Republicans voted this time around to indict Trump.

By Wednesday afternoon, six Republicans, including MP Liz Cheney (WY), had announced their plans to support the impeachment following the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

But the votes of the Republicans in the House were technically not necessary to indict Trump, as the Democrats could get it by a simple majority. Knowing they couldn't change the outcome, impeachment Republicans may feel they could take the politically safe approach of sticking with Trump.

In addition, the Senate is different from the House of Representatives, as seen recently in the votes to undo Biden's victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania. House Republicans supported both objections 121-83 and 138-64, but Senate Republicans voted 45-6 and 44-7 on them.

Nonetheless, some key Republican Senators such as Lindsey Graham (SC), Tim Scott (SC) and Roy Blunt (MO) have spoken out against impeachment in recent days. Despite those intriguing leaks, McConnell hasn't pledged to support this either (and, according to the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, he's not going to whip senators into either position).

So it remains entirely plausible that despite a violent uprising that put the lives of Congressmen in jeopardy, if Republicans hold on to Trump, partisanship and polarization will still triumph in the end. However, given McConnell's decisions about the timing of the process, we will have to wait until the Biden administration to find out.

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