Although the president’s impeachment trial technically began last Thursday, when House impeachment managers delivered articles of impeachment to the Senate and senators swore an oath of impartiality, the actual substance of the trial did not begin until today at one o’clock, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered opening statements and began debating the rules of the trial. McConnell’s resolution, released late last night, infuriated Democrats as they perceived the proposed rules to be tremendously unfair, as they only give the prosecution and the defense 24 hours to present their arguments over the course of 2 days, do not allow for the production of documents and witnesses, and call for the proceedings to run late into the night, at a time when Americans are likely not to watch the trial.
Despite these restrictions, McConnell argued that the trial would be fair, raising objections from TV pundits as well as Democratic politicians. In response, Schumer decried the rules, pointing out McConnell’s hypocrisy as he previously said that he wanted the rules of the trial to resemble the ones that governed the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial. Additionally, reporters are complaining about the strict rules that limit journalistic access to the proceedings; while reporters are allowed to sit in the Senate gallery and observe the trial, they are not allowed to bring any electronic devices, including cameras, into the room. Instead, the camera that will film the trial is controlled by the government, and will only record the person who is speaking at the moment. What’s more, reporters are not allowed to ask questions of the senators as they walk through the halls of the Senate, which is a time-honored tradition on Capitol Hill. As such, cable networks are limited in their capacity to broadcast the event, and journalists have expressed fears that such rules prevent reporters from doing the job of recording momentous political occasions for the historical record.
Though McConnell characterized his proposed rules as “fair,” they break with Senate tradition and precedent as they seem to be engineered to prevent the discovery of new information and to limit the American people’s exposure to evidence in the case against Trump. Unfortunately for Democrats, McConnell’s resolution is likely to pass, as Republican senators are known for falling in line under McConnell’s direction. A simple majority of 51 votes is required to pass trial resolutions in the Senate, and as there are 53 Republican US Senators, it’s likely that the resolution will pass with few, if any, amendments. While Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the trial, if he chooses to keep with precedent, he will do virtually nothing. In the Clinton trial, Chief Justice Rehnquist made almost no contributions to the trial, later commenting that he did very little and did it very well. However, the situation in the Clinton trial was very different, as senators agreed in a 100-0 vote on the rules that would govern the trial.
American public sentiment does not match the proposed rules in the trial. According to a poll conducted by the Washington Post, more than 70% of Americans want the impeachment trial to include witnesses, and a slim majority, 51%, believe the evidence that has been unearthed in advance of the trial is sufficient to warrant the president’s removal from office. Republican senators have already signalled that they will vote to acquit the president, and virtually nobody believes that Trump will be removed from office via the impeachment process; however, many are disappointed by the restrictive and precedent-shattering nature of the rules that will likely govern the trial.
Notably, some of the senators who will act as jurors in the trial are also running for president, meaning that they are unable to campaign during the duration of the trial. These senators include two of the Democratic frontrunners, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Senators Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennett. According to the rules of the trial, senators are not allowed to speak at all throughout the duration of the proceedings, which may prove difficult for some. Additionally, senators will not be allowed to leave the room to use the bathroom or eat, which may prove difficult for some as the proceedings are expected to start at one PM and continue well past one o’clock in the morning.
Update: After this article was written, Republican senators changed their proposed rules to allow arguments to be held over three days, not two, reducing the logistical challenge for participants in the trial.