Now that President Donald Trump has been impeached by the House of Representatives, it’s up to the Republican-controlled Senate to decide the president’s fate.
The Senate could hold an impeachment trial as early as January. But, the two chambers of Congress are in a standoff over next steps, and it’s anybody’s guess what might transpire, says Jeremy Paul, a law professor and former dean of Northeastern University’s School of Law.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated she is in no hurry to send the two House-passed articles of impeachment to the Senate—articles that would trigger a trial of the president—until an agreement is reached on the terms of the trial.
The theory, says Paul, is that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, will ask for votes calling for witnesses to testify, including former national security advisor John Bolton, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, over Trump’s actions involving Ukraine. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he doesn’t want any witnesses during the trial, and it’s not likely that Schumer and McConnell will reach an understanding, says Paul.
“He does not seem even remotely amenable to any kind of agreement, but you never know what he’s actually saying in private,” Paul says. “In his remarks, he was very defiant that the House should have succeeded in getting the testimony of those witnesses.”
Earlier this week, McConnell publicly stated that he would not be fair or impartial on impeachment, but given that senators must take an oath swearing to be impartial before being sworn in for an impeachment trial, it’s likely that he has created a public relations problem for himself, says Paul.
“But, McConnell has proven in the past that he’s willing to do a lot of things that would anger a reasonable public,” he says, adding that McConnell’s actions are also contingent upon how much pressure he receives from Republican senators who are up for reelection in 2020 in states that are not Republican, including Susan Collins of Maine, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Don’t look for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who presides over the trial, to insert himself in the proceedings, says Paul. While the extent of his authority is not totally clear, Roberts doesn’t set the rules of the trial; the Senate does. He is expected to step in, however, if there are questions about whether the rules are being followed, or to make a ruling about whether or not the evidence should be admitted.
“The person who is presiding over a proceeding always has some influence on the outcome, but his goal will be to be perceived by the public as being a neutral arbiter because the Supreme Court’s entire legitimacy comes from the country’s trust that it’s playing by the rules, and not leaning to one side or the other,” Paul says.
A two-thirds majority in the Senate would be required to remove Trump from office, but the outcome of the trial appears to be “preordained,” says Paul.
“Unless there’s some shocking new revelation, it would be extremely surprising if the Senate voted to remove the president from office,” he says.
In a way, says Paul, the battle over impeachment reflects the deep rift within the country that existed well before Trump came into power, and has only worsened since. Even the debate on the House floor on Wednesday was “disappointing” for how partisan it was, says Paul.
“To me, the real question is, will the country figure out how to confront a polarized situation? That, I think, is one of the most dangerous things about our current political situation,” says Paul. “The goal is to get back to a point where you’re operating with the same set of facts and a shared set of goals.”
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