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US Senators Clash Over Impeachment Trial Procedures

Right after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi surprised pundits everywhere by making a strategic move no one saw coming: instead of immediately deciding upon impeachment managers to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, she decided to withhold the transmission of articles as leverage to coerce Senate Republicans to vote for what she considers to be a fair trial, which includes the calling of witnesses and the production of documents. Currently, Congress is in recess for the holidays, but negotiations surrounding the trial proceed nevertheless, even as lawmakers visit their families and constituents at their homes. 

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called upon four Republicans to vote in favor of allowing documents and witnesses during the trial, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell starkly opposes. As the procedures for the trial will be determined by 51 votes, and Schumer already has all 47 Democratic Senators onboard, only four Republicans would have to defy McConnell to ensure a trial with witnesses and documents. Given the fact that the president himself has said that he’d like to see witnesses during the trial, and almost 2 in 3 Republicans also want top Trump aides to testify at the Senate trial, Schumer and the Democrats hope that pressure from constituents will be enough to convince the necessary four Republican senators to side with Democrats on this matter.

Given the dramatic and historic nature of this impeachment, people around the world are paying very close attention to the U.S. Congress during these critical next few weeks, as the rules of the trial will have to be determined soon for it to begin early next year as intended. Accordingly, U.S. senators, who ultimately will shortly decide whether the president is fit to remain in office for the rest of his first term, are using the media to amplify their message either for or against a fair trial as they try to build their cases. Today, The New York Times published an opinion piece written by Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont, who wrote of the historic implications of the Senate’s upcoming decision, as this impeachment trial, no matter how it ends up proceeding, will set precedent for future impeachments and forever define Congress’s role in checking the misconduct of a duly elected president.

The actions the Senate takes over the next several weeks will at least in part outline the shape of future impeachments and more clearly define the nature of Congress’s power to check the executive branch.

In the piece, Leahy argues that the outcome of the upcoming trial will determine the validity of the Senate itself, and more broadly the importance of truth in our government. Leahy, who has served as a juror on six impeachment trials of five judges and one president, notes that senators must swear an oath to carry out “impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws,” and fears that the Senate will shortly abandon the idea of taking this oath seriously. This is because several Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, have already said they’ve made up their minds and that they don’t expect to act as fair jurors during the trial.

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Impeachment trials are wholly separate from other types of trials, as they are conducted in the Senate, which briefly operates as a court of law during the proceedings. The Senate has the sole responsibility of setting the rules of its trial, and as the Senate is characterized by the presence of partisan politicians who are unflinchingly loyal to the president, Democrats fear that the trial will end up being fundamentally corrupt. Already, McConnell, who will act as one of 100 jurors, has pledged that “there will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this,” creating a rare case of a trial in which the jurors collaborate with the defendant to ensure the outcome favored by the defendant. Presidential impeachments are rare in American history, and as such there exists little precedent for how they should be carried out; as such, the actions the Senate takes over the next several weeks will at least in part outline the shape of future impeachments and more clearly define the nature of Congress’s power to check the executive branch.