US senators vote to proceed with Trump impeachment trial

Democrats lay out case for prosecution as trial opens with graphic footage of Capitol riots

A divided US Senate voted largely along party lines on Tuesday to move ahead with Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on a charge of inciting the storming of the US Capitol in January.

The Senate voted 56-44 to proceed to the first-ever trial of a former president, another indication that the former president is likely to be acquitted.

Earlier senior Democrats urged their Republican colleagues to convict Mr Trump on incitement charges,warning that the attack on Capitol Hill “cannot be our future”.

On the opening day of Mr Trump’s impeachment trial, senators gathered in the very building where the January 6th assault took place to determine if the former president should be convicted for inciting the insurrection.

As proceedings opened, House Democrats played a graphic video montage of the attack, interspersing clips of Mr Trump’s speech to supporters on the National Mall before the riot with footage from the attack itself.

Recordings showed Trump supporters charging through the Capitol building, roaring expletives and charging the door of the Senate chamber.

"You ask what a high crime and misdismeanour is under our constitution?" said House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin as the montage concluded. "That's a high crime and misdemeanour. If that's not an impeachable offence then there is no such thing."

He rejected arguments that the trial was unconstitutional – a key argument of Mr Trump’s legal team, who attest that Mr Trump should not be tried as he is no longer in office.

Citing impeachment cases from history, Mr Raskin argued that former officials, such as Warren Hastings, have always been subject to impeachment trials. Hastings was convicted years after he resigned as the governor-general of Bengal in the late 18th century – a case that directly influenced the writers of the US constitution.

“Removal was never seen as the exclusive purpose of impeachment,” he said. “The goal was always about accountability, protecting society and deterring official corruption.”

Swift trial

After four hours of debate, the Senate voted to proceed with the trial, which could conclude as early as this weekend as Democrats seek to wrap up proceedings as quickly as possible.

However, it appears likely that Mr Trump will be acquitted. Seventeen Republicans are needed to vote with the chamber’s 50 Democrats in order to reach the two-thirds majority required for conviction.

On the first day of the trial Mr Trump’s lawyers failed to land any legal punches, admitting at one point that they had changed their planned defence because the House managers’ presentation was better than they expected.

The two sides will have an opportunity to call witnesses later in the week, though it looks unlikely they will do so, making a swift trial more likely.

David Schoen, a lawyer for Mr Trump, withdrew his request that proceedings be paused after sunset on Friday to allow him to observe the Sabbath, with the result that the trial will continue over the weekend.

Democrats are keen to move forward with the legislative agenda of President Joe Biden, who is focused on securing congressional support for his Covid relief bill.

‘The gravest’

Opening the first day of proceedings, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said the charge of "incitement to insurrection" facing Mr Trump was "the gravest ever brought against a president of the United States in American history". His introduction paved the way for a lengthy presentation from three of the House impeachment managers, who played a video montage of the January 6th attack.

Taking issue with Republicans’ argument that a president cannot face trial after leaving office, Democrats warned of the dangers of a “January exception”- the notion that a president would be free to do anything without fear of repercussions in the final month of their term.

“Everybody can see immediately why this is so dangerous - it’s an invitation to the president to take a shot at anything he wants to on his way out the door,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager.

Colorado’s Joe Neguse continued the argument. “What you experienced that day, what we experienced that day, what our country experienced that day is the framers’ worst nightmare come to life,” he said of the January 6th riot. “Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened.”

Changed strategy

Mr Trump’s defence attorney Bruce Castor was the first of his two lawyers to speak, publicly stating that he and his colleague had changed their strategy because the prosecution’s opening statement had been so strong.

He suggested that the impeachment trial was a political act, noting that Republicans will some day be back in control of the House and Senate. He also warned about impeachments becoming routine, noting that most observers had now witnessed three impeachments in their lifetime.

During a meandering 50-minute presentation, he sought to distance Mr Trump from the events of January 6th, which he described as “repugnant”.

“You’ll never hear a member of the Trump legal team say anything other than what happened on January 6th and the storming and breaching of the Capitol should be denounced in the most vigorous terms.”

But he warned senators against allowing their emotional response to the events of that day to cloud their logic.

As he took the floor, Mr Schoen delivered a more focused defence, immediately questioning the constitutionality of the trial.

“Going forward with this impeachment trial . . . is unconstitutional,” he said, describing the process as rushed and flawed.

“Anyone interested in true accountability, would insist on waiting for a full investigation to be completed,” he added.

He also played several videos of Democrats criticising Mr Trump, suggesting that they were committed to impeaching the former president ever since he was elected.

“This so-called trial will tear the country apart,” he said.

He also took issue with the appointment of a Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, as the presiding officer of the trial.