Trump impeachment trial to begin early February

WASHINGTON (AP) – Opening arguments in the Senate impeachment trial for Donald Trump over the Capitol riot will begin the week of February 8, the first time a former United States (US) president will face such charges after leaving office.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the schedule on Friday evening after reaching an agreement with Republicans, who had pushed for a delay to give Trump a chance to organise his legal team and prepare a defence on the sole charge of incitement of insurrection.

The February start date also allows the Senate more time to confirm President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations and consider his proposed USD1.9 trillion COVID relief package – top priorities of the new White House agenda that could become stalled during trial proceedings.

“We all want to put this awful chapter in our nation’s history behind us,” Schumer said about the deadly January 6 Capitol siege by a mob of pro-Trump supporters.

“But healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability. And that is what this trial will provide.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will send the article of impeachment late Monday, with senators sworn in as jurors on Tuesday. But opening arguments will move to February.

Trump’s impeachment trial would 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.

File photo shows Donald Trump holding up a newspaper displaying a headline ‘Acquitted’, in Washington DC. PHOTO: AFP

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 – a violent attack on the US Congress aimed at overturning an election.

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

The urgency for Democrats to hold Trump responsible was complicated by the need to put Biden’s government in place and start quick work on his coronavirus aid package.

“The more time we have to get up and running … the better,” Biden said on Friday in brief comments to reporters.

Republicans were eager to delay the trial, putting distance between the shocking events of the siege and the votes that will test their loyalty to the former president who still commands voters’ attention.

Negotiations between Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were complicated, as the two are also in talks over a power-sharing agreement for the Senate, which is split 50-50 but in Democratic control because Vice President Kamala Harris serves as a tie-breaking vote. McConnell had proposed delaying the start and welcomed the agreement.

“Republicans set out to ensure the Senate’s next steps will respect former President Trump’s rights and due process, the institution of the Senate, and the office of the presidency,” said McConnell’s spokesman Doug Andres. “That goal has been achieved.”

Pelosi said on Friday the nine House impeachment managers, or prosecutors, are “ready to begin to make their case” against Trump. Trump’s team will have had the same amount of time since the House impeachment vote to prepare, Pelosi said.

Democrats said they can move quickly through the trial, potentially with no witnesses, because lawmakers experienced the insurrection first-hand.

One of the managers, California Republican Ted Lieu, said on Friday that Democrats would rather be working on policy right now, but “we can’t just ignore” what happened on January 6.

“This was an attack on our Capitol by a violent mob,” Lieu said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was an attack on our nation instigated by our commander in chief. We have to address that and make sure it never happens again.”

Trump, who told his supporters to “fight like hell” just before they invaded the Capitol two weeks ago and interrupted the electoral vote count, is still assembling his legal team.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday deferred to Congress on timing for the trial and would not say whether Biden thinks Trump should be convicted. But she said lawmakers can simultaneously discuss and have hearings on Biden’s coronavirus relief package.

“We don’t think it can be delayed or it can wait, so they’re going to have to find a path forward,” Psaki said of the virus aid. “He’s confident they can do that.”

Democrats would need the support of at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump, a high bar.

While most Republican senators condemned Trump’s actions that day, far fewer appear to be ready to convict.

A handful of Senate Republicans have indicated they are open – but not committed – to conviction. But most have come to Trump’s defence as it relates to impeachment, saying they believe a trial will be divisive and questioning the legality of trying a president after he has left office.