I’m Confused… The Senate Trial?

Do you think Congress deliberately makes things complicated to confuse the rest of us? Or is it just the nature of the beast? Trying to rule a country, I can only imagine, must be complicated. As a representative democracy, that probably adds another layer.

Well, for the common folk who are trying to make sense of what’s going on with the impeachment of President Trump, I’ll do my best to pick through the information.

We’ll try a question and answer format.

Isn’t President Trump already impeached? What’s this next step?

Yes, President Donald Trump was impeached on December 18, 2019, when the Democratic-majority House of Representatives voted to approve the Articles of Impeachment. But as explained in this impeachment article, all this means is that the House of Representatives are taking legal action against the President. He isn’t removed from office simply because he was impeached. That’s up to the Senate.

The next step in this whole process is the Senate Trial. The Senate will hear the House of Representative managers (seven representatives selected by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) acting as “prosecutor” presenting all of the evidence against President Trump and arguing why he should be removed from office. The Senate will also hear from White House lawyers (hopefully not any of Trump’s personal lawyers — sorry, I couldn’t resist) who will present the defense. The Senate established various rules for how the trial will be conducted, though some rules are standard. For example, the entire proceedings will be conducted by Supreme Court Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Also, senators are not allowed to speak during the trial. As outlined later in this article, they get to ask questions, but only in writing. Other rules, like how much time each side gets to plead their case, are flexible.

I heard that the Senate voted NOT to hear any witnesses. Is that true?

Yes and no…. Well, maybe. At the beginning, no witnesses will testify before the Senate because the House representatives get to do that. Unlike a normal criminal trial with witness testimony and cross-examination, each side simply gives a summary of all of their arguments.

It all really comes down to one question. Will new evidence, in addition to the evidence that will be provided by the House of Representatives and obtained during their impeachment inquiry, be part of the process? This new evidence could include witness testimony and documents. 

The Senate — led by Republicans — voted to put this question on hold. They will get a chance to vote on that particular question later in the process. Senators who are pushing to admit new witnesses and documents are looking for a guarantee that this information has a chance to be included. Before I get more into that, let’s go over the process.

The process (and where they will be voting on whether to admit new evidence) for the Senate Trial is as follows:

  1. The Prosecution and Defense both have 24 hours of air time (I’m not sure what else to call this, but they get a total of 24 hours to present their material). This 48 hours of arguments is stretched out over 6 days (three days each). Note: the original rules said that each side had to fit all 24 hours of argument into a 2-day period. A last minute adjustment gave an additional day to each side.   
  2. Senate members have 16 hours to write questions which will be read out loud by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. who, as mentioned earlier, is presiding over the trial. This rule of reading questions rather than allowing Senators to speak for themselves reduces what is already a fairly wild circus show. 
  3. ** Here is where the Senate will officially vote about new evidence and witnesses. ** At this point, after listening to both sides and writing down questions, the rules say the Senate gets to vote as to whether more information is needed. This includes calling new witnesses or collecting additional documents.
  4. Depending on how the Senate votes:
    1. If the Senate votes YES to allow new stuff in, they will issue subpoenas and hear from new witnesses and review new evidence.
    2. If the Senate votes NO, the Senate will proceed to step 5.
  5. The Senate votes whether to convict or acquit the President.

So, there is no guarantee that we will be hearing new evidence. But, that doesn’t mean we won’t. The Senate will be deciding that later.

Why is there a call for more evidence? 

The White House has withheld some evidence using executive privilege to protect the information. This includes key witnesses and specific documents that have been referenced by the current evidence and testimony. Executive privilege, however, isn’t a Constitutional power. It could be argued that information relevant to the trial may be subpoenaed and upheld in court.

I want to insert here that the House of Representatives has had the usual struggle trying to collect evidence during the impeachment inquiry. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi didn’t submit the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate right away, holding them and asking that the Senate commit to conducting a fair trial. There’s a sense that the Senate’s requests have a little more teeth in comparison to the House of Representatives — though not officially. 

To illustrate the difference, John Bolton, former National Security Advisor (fired by Trump in the middle of all the drama) and key witness, stated that he would sue the House of Representatives if they issued a subpoena for him to testify. Then, as the Articles of Impeachment passed and were poised to move on to the Senate for trial, he publicly announced that he would testify if the Senate issued a subpoena. The Senate might be able to get more evidence compared to what the House of Representatives was able to collect. 

What will it take to convict or acquit the President?

In order to convict President Donald Trump, the Senate needs two-thirds (⅔) of the members to vote in favor of a conviction. (Note: two-thirds of voting members, which may not mean two-thirds of all 100 senators if some senators don’t vote or abstain). To acquit the President, however, it only takes a simple majority or, basically, a failure to meet the two-thirds requirement for conviction. The Republicans already have a simple majority in the Senate and can easily vote to acquit the President of all charges.

This is a perfect example of how our two-party political system is failing us. Most elected officials vote along party lines. There are the occasional exceptions. But for those who do step out of the party’s beaten path, there is usually not much change in the actual outcome. And, often, these independent thinkers magically decide to retire.

As we watch….

Remember that people like to play us against each other. Fighting and arguments make news. While I invite you to definitely voice your concerns to your representatives, I challenge all of us not to get too outwardly upset with those who disagree with us. Disagreements are natural, but they’re not always permanent.

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