Democrats have marched the impeachment case against former US President Donald Trump to the Senate for the start of his historic trial.
But Republican senators were easing off their criticism of the former president and shunning calls to convict him over the deadly siege at the US Capitol.
It’s an early sign of Trump’s enduring sway over the party.
The House prosecutors on Monday night delivered the sole impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection,” making the ceremonial walk across the Capitol to the Senate.
But Republican denunciations of Trump have cooled since the January 6 riot. Instead Republicans are presenting a tangle of legal arguments against the legitimacy of the trial and questions whether Trump’s repeated demands to overturn Joe Biden’s election really amounted to incitement.
What seemed for some Democrats like an open-shut case that played out for the world on live television, as Trump encouraged a rally mob to “fight like hell” for his presidency, is running into a Republican Party that feels very differently.
Not only are there legal concerns, but senators are wary of crossing the former president and his legions of followers who are their voters. Security remains tight at the Capitol.
Arguments in the Senate trial will begin the week of February 8, and the case against Trump, the first former president to face impeachment trial, will test a political party still sorting itself out for the post-Trump era.
For Democrats the tone, tenor and length of the upcoming trial, so early in Biden’s presidency, poses its own challenge, forcing them to strike a balance between their vow to hold Trump accountable and their eagerness to deliver on the new administration’s priorities following their sweep of control of the House, Senate and White House.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Republicans appear more eager to argue over trial process than the substance of the impeachment case against Trump, perhaps to avoid casting judgment on the former president’s “role in fomenting the despicable attack” on the Capitol.
He said there’s only one question “senators of both parties will have to answer before God and their own conscience: Is former President Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection against the United States?”
Failing to conduct the trial would amount to a “get-out-jail-free card” for other officials accused of wrongdoing on their way out the door, Schumer said.
On Monday, it was learned that Chief Justice John Roberts is not expected to preside at the trial, as he did during Trump’s first impeachment, potentially affecting the gravitas of the proceedings. The shift is said to be in keeping with protocol because Trump is no longer in office.
The start date gives Trump’s new legal team time to prepare its case, while also providing more than a month’s distance from the passions of the bloody riot. For the Democratic-led Senate, the intervening weeks provide prime time to confirm some of Biden’s key Cabinet nominees.
An early vote to dismiss the trial probably would not succeed, given that Democrats now control the Senate.
Still, the mounting Republican opposition to the proceedings indicates that many GOP senators would eventually vote to acquit Trump. Democrats would need the support of 17 Republicans – a high bar – to convict him.
A few GOP senators have agreed with Democrats, though not close to the number that will be needed to convict Trump.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he believes “what is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offence.”
“If not, what is?”, he added.
But Romney, the lone Republican to vote to convict Trump when the Senate acquitted the then-president in last year’s trial, appears to be an outlier.