To say there exists little historical precedent for presidential impeachment trials would be an understatement. Before Trump, only two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have ever faced an impeachment trial in the Senate, and the circumstances in each trial were very different. During Johnson’s trial, for instance, 41 witnesses testified, whereas Clinton’s trial only featured a handful of witnesses. If Senate Republicans get their way, however, Trump’s trial will feature neither witnesses nor subpoenas for documents, and it will end quickly with an acquittal. The Constitution gives Congress the freedom to determine its own rules for how to handle impeachment trials; this fact, combined with the relative lack of historical precedent, makes it difficult for anyone to predict how the trial will proceed. That being said, the trial will likely be shaped in large part by partisan allegiance to the president, as several Republican senators have already said they’re not interested in acting as impartial jurors and Mitch McConnell has predicted a “largely partisan outcome.” Because hyperpartisanship threatens jurors’ impartiality, and thus the integrity of the trial, some political strategists have suggested that the senators should cast their ballot in secret, protecting them from the political ramifications of their vote and encouraging an independent decision.
According to Juleanna Glover, a Republican strategist, it would be fairly easy for the Senate to ensure a secret ballot. Creating rules for the trial requires only a simple majority vote in the Senate; assuming Democrats vote in lockstep in favor of a secret ballot, only three Republicans would have to defect to reach the 51 votes necessary to effectuate the rule. Though they don’t publicly admit it for fear of the political repercussions, many Republican senators strongly oppose the president in private, according to various reports. In fact, former Republican senator Jeff Flake has said that he believes that there are at least 35 GOP senators who would vote to remove Trump if the votes were private; such a result would make Trump the first president in US history to be removed by the impeachment process. A secret ballot, however, would break with Senate tradition and expectations of transparency surrounding Senate proceedings, particularly in the extreme case of deciding whether to remove a sitting president from office. That being said, the atmosphere of hyperpartisanship, combined with an overall dislike of the president among lawmakers, may be enough to convince more than half of the Senate to institute such an unusual rule.
Few people predict that Trump will be removed from the White House before the 2020 election, but we live in an era in which unprecedented and unpredicted political events are borderline commonplace.
While American politics has long been characterized by partisanship, the current political environment is arguably more partisan than ever before, with the vote in the House to impeach Trump passing almost entirely along party lines. The Senate is often considered to be a more impartial chamber than the House, but by most accounts it is still more partisan than it’s ever been. In Clinton’s trial, Republicans and Democrats collaborated to determine the rules, resulting in unanimous consent among all 100 senators—such an outcome is nearly inconceivable in today’s Senate. This very partisanship, though, is precisely what may motivate some senators to support a secret ballot. And while there exists a certain demand for transparency for actions taken by the Senate, grand jury proceedings, which the Senate trial will essentially function as, allow jurors to deliberate and vote in secret.
Already, cracks are starting to form in the Republicans’ solidarity in their support of Trump; Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, for instance, has said that she is “disturbed” by McConnell’s pledge to coordinate with the White House in defining the rules of the trial, and Mitt Romney has characterized the president’s conduct for which he was impeached as “troubling in the extreme.” A secret ballot, though admittedly unlikely, may be enough for these cracks to cause Republican senators’ defense of Trump to collapse, leading to his potential removal from office. Few people predict that Trump will be removed from the White House before the 2020 election, but we live in an era in which unprecedented and unpredicted political events are borderline commonplace.