WASHINGTON — The impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump begins this week, returning the recently departed leader to the limelight.
As in his first impeachment trial a year ago, it will be difficult for Democrats to muster the two-thirds Senate majority required to convict him. But the trial is still expected to absorb the nation’s attention.
The case rests on a single charge approved by the Democratic-led House, with the support of 10 Republicans: that Trump incited the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Even though Trump was defeated for re-election last year, the stakes of the trial are high for the country and for a Republican Party that is tethered to him as long as he remains popular among its core voters and has the option to run for president again.
As of Sunday evening, the structure of the trial and possible witnesses hadn’t yet been announced.
Here are five things to watch for when it begins:
How many Republicans will vote to convict?
In Trump’s first impeachment trial, one year ago, just one Republican voted to convict, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. If Democrats unanimously vote to convict him again, at least 17 Republicans would have to join them to succeed.
That’s a high bar.
The likeliest targets, apart from Romney, are Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. (Sasse and Collins just won re-election, Toomey isn’t running for re-election in 2022, and Murkowski has criticized Trump’s actions.)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he will keep an open mind, a departure from a year ago, when he declared the effort dead before the proceedings began.
Some GOP leaders are, again, telegraphing failure.
“At this point, there’s not going to be a conviction. You can read the writing on the wall,” John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, said recently on CNN.
Will senators take a procedural out?
Many Republican senators have already demonstrated that they don’t want to defend Trump, but they also don’t want to vote to convict him.
And that’s why it looks like a significant number of Republicans will try to take a procedural out instead of justifying Trump’s actions on the merits.
Many have argued that the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer president, disagreeing with scholars who have studied the issue and say it’s valid.
Last month, 45 Republicans voted for a motion by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., aimed at dismissing the trial as unconstitutional. They included McConnell, whose vote is crucial to any hope of a conviction.
What, if anything, will we hear from Trump?
Trump is now without the tool he used during the previous impeachment trial to try to influence the proceedings: his Twitter account.
On the second day of his 2020 trial, Trump pumped 140 tweets, including retweets, into his timeline. Now his account is suspended, along with his Facebook and Instagram accounts. As a result, his attorneys will probably have to carry the burden.
Democrats requested that Trump testify in person, an offer his attorneys declined. Inside his orbit, there has been disagreement about whether to repeat his groundless claims that the election was stolen or whether to push the procedural argument that appeals to GOP senators.
His attorneys, David Schoen and Bruce Castor Jr., have indicated that they will do the latter, saying in their brief that the impeachment is “unconstitutional, and must be dismissed with prejudice.”
How will Democrats address a skeptical Senate?
The managers says they have an open-and-shut case. But they also know they’re dealing with a Senate that includes many who want to acquit Trump for fear of losing their political careers.
The impeachment managers’ brief, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, argues that Trump is “singularly responsible for the violence and destruction that unfolded in our seat of government on January 6.”
They will seek to connect the dots from the riot to Trump’s rhetoric falsely claiming that the election was stolen and his encouragement of the rioters.
Notably, the Democrats’ brief also includes a section arguing that the unconstitutionality claims are “wrong” and “dangerous.” They say the framers of the Constitution didn’t want the country to be “virtually defenseless against a president’s treachery in his final days” or to create a “January Exception” to impeachment or anything else in the Constitution.
No chief justice. Leahy presides. Harris breaks ties.
For the first time, the chief justice won’t be presiding over a presidential impeachment trial. Because Trump is no longer in the White House, that task will go to Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate’s president pro tempore.
“It’ll be interesting,” Leahy said late last week. “I’ve been going through hundreds of pages of material in preparation — and spending this weekend preparing for it.”
Two rungs ahead of Leahy in the line of succession to the presidency is Vice President Kamala Harris, who may also be a presence at the trial. While she won’t be a constant presence, Democratic aides say she may be needed to break ties on procedural votes if they split 50-50, and she probably won’t travel far from Washington until it’s over.