US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is moving forward after the Senate approved the legality of the proceedings on a day that saw the defence team’s opening arguments ridiculed by several Republicans – including the defendant himself.
Trump is the first president to be impeached twice and the first to be tried after leaving office.
The House impeached Trump for allegedly inciting an insurrection on Capitol Hill in early January as Congress was certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory.
In the coming days, the Senate will act as a court of impeachment deliberating if the former president is guilty of “inciting insurrection.”
The Democratic-controlled US House passed the sole article of impeachment – which is akin to an indictment – on January 13, a week after the Capitol riot.
Democrats and some Republicans also seek to use the sole article to disqualify Trump from holding public office, including running for president in 2024.
The Article of Impeachment alleges that in the months preceding the Jan. 6 incident at the US Capitol, Trump repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the election results were the product of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people.
Tuesday’s proceeding began with conflicting arguments from both sides on whether Trump is subject to the chamber’s jurisdiction.
House managers, who serve as prosecutors, insisted that it would set a dangerous precedent to declare a former official unimpeachable for misdeeds in his final days in office.
Trump’s lawyer Bruce Castor urged lawmakers not to trivialise impeachments and warned that the pressure to respond in kind will be enormous once the political pendulum shifts.
Castor defended Trump’s statements as speech protected by the First Amendment, and argued that the Senate lacks jurisdiction over Trump because he holds no public office from which he can be removed.
Castor pointed out that Article 1 section 3 of the US constitution says “judgments in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office,” and disqualification to hold any office of honour, trust, or profit.
“President Trump no longer is in office. The object of the Constitution has been achieved. He was removed by the voters,” Castor said.
Castor also pointed out that those who stormed the Capitol building were not accused of conspiring with Trump.
Ultimately, the Senate by a 56-44 vote declared that the trial was constitutional and the body did have jurisdiction to hear the arguments and render a verdict.
Six Republican Senators voted to continue the impeachment trial, including Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Pat Toomey, Ben Sasse, and Bill Cassidy.
This is pivotal because it signals that Trump is likely to be acquitted.
At least 17 of 50 Republican Senators need to side with Democrats to have the required two-thirds majority to convict Trump.
The US House managers and Trump’s lawyers will now be given 16 hours over two days to present their cases.
Senators will afterward vote on the Article of Impeachment and, if the former President is convicted by an unlikely two-thirds majority, will proceed to a verdict on whether he is qualified to hold office ever again.
Biden, as proceedings got underway, said he had better things to do than watch Trump’s impeachment trial.
“I am not,” Biden told reporters when asked if he was going to watch the trial.
“My job is to keep people. We’ve already lost over 450,000 people (and) we’re gonna lose a whole lot more if we don’t act and act decisively and quickly,” the president added.
According to Biden, the Senate has their job and they are about to begin it.
“I am sure they are going to conduct themselves well. That’s all I am going to say about impeachment,” Biden said.
Trump was reportedly furious over the way his defense team performed during the opening arguments.
CNN reported, citing people familiar with the reaction, that Trump was “almost screaming,” at the “meandering” arguments.
Cassidy, the only Republican senator to change his stance on the constitutionality issue, was blunt in his criticism of Trump’s lawyers.
Two weeks ago Cassidy voted in favour of Senator Rand Paul’s failed motion to dismiss the impeachment trial.
“President Trump’s team was disorganised. They did everything they could but to talk about the question at hand and when they talked about it, they kind of glided over it, almost as if they were embarrassed by their arguments,” Cassidy said.
Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who voted to declare the impeachment trial unconstitutional, also criticised Trump’s legal defence team.
Castor, for his part, told reporters he thought the legal defence team “had a good day,” adding that they would make adjustments if needed.
Defence attorney David Schoen said he thought his partner Castor “did a great job.”
Castor and Schoen joined the team just recently after five of Trump’s impeachment lawyers quit.