Republicans control the Senate chamber, 53-47, and are all but certain to acquit Donald Trump
But it takes just 51 votes during the trial to approve rules or call witnesses, potentially stretching trial out
The managers chosen to prosecute the
will make their case to all 100 senators. But to get the trial they want, they need just four Republicans.
The House Democrats presenting the case at trial face the unique challenge of persuading a handful of senators to cross the aisle and join Democrats in demanding that the trial include documents and witnesses most Republicans would like to avoid.
In a polarised era, even that modest goal could prove difficult. But it is Democrats’ only hope to avoid the abrupt acquittal Trump is seeking. How that phase plays out could shape the depth of the stain of impeachment on Trump’s legacy, but also the fortunes of many of the senators who will be on the ballot in November along with the president.
“We’re going to make the case,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for Democrats, said.
“Not only to the Senate, but we will make the case to the American people and expect that senators will be accountable for their decisions.”
The House impeached Trump December 18 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after an investigation into the president’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats. Those articles were to be formally presented to the Senate on Thursday, triggering a trial.
The president’s team expects acquittal with a Senate trial lasting no more than two weeks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has hand-selected the seven House members who will make the case for Trump’s conviction and removal from office. She said their focus would be on “making the strongest possible case to protect and defend our Constitution, to seek the truth for the American people”.
While the Democratic prosecutors can look to former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment for a model, their challenge is different. In Clinton’s trial, the 13 Republican Party managers already had an exhaustive trail of evidence, delivered by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
For Trump, the House had to compile its own case, using a whistle-blower complaint as a guide. But lawmakers were unable to obtain testimony and documents from key administration officials who refused to cooperate, under orders from the White House.
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, for example, has said he will testify before the Senate but refused to talk to the House. Bolton was present for many of the key episodes in which Trump pressured Ukraine as he ordered military aid to the country withheld.
If the Democrats can obtain new information during the trial from Bolton and other witnesses, it could extend the proceedings and prevent a rapid acquittal. But with only 47 Democrats in the Senate, they’ll need support from at least four Republicans to obtain the necessary 51 votes -and there’s no guarantee they’ll get there.
The task of convincing them falls primarily to Schiff and House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler, whose committee wrote and approved the two articles of impeachment.
Schiff said the managers intend to lay out facts of their case in detail, using video clips from House testimony to inform not only the senators in the room, but also the millions of Americans watching the trial who could pressure Republicans to act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signalled scepticism about hearing from witnesses, though he hasn’t ruled it out. And many in his caucus have said they want to stay within the confines of the case the House is sending over. They say that if the House wanted more information, they should have gone to court for it.
However, “fifty-one senators will decide who to call,” McConnell acknowledged Tuesday.
There are already signs that the House push – and Pelosi’s four-week delay in sending the articles – was having the desired effect.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine is leading an effort among some Republicans, including Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, to consider Senate witnesses
Romney said he wants to hear from Bolton. Those or any four senators could force an outcome.
Democrats are trying to keep up the pressure. On Tuesday, three House committees released documents provided by an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The documents from Lev Parnas detail his work as an intermediary in Ukraine as Trump pushed the investigations of Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Schiff said he expects more evidence to come out as the trial progresses.
“One thing that senators are going to have to think about is, if they prohibit us from getting the documents, they’re going to come out over time anyway,” Schiff said.
“And it will be very difficult for them to explain to the country why they voted not to see the evidence at a time when it would have helped them in their judgment.”
“The challenge,” Schiff said, “is to get a fair trial”.
Earlier Wednesday Trump ridiculed the investigation and trial, as he has for months.
“Here we go again, another Con Job by the Do Nothing Democrats,” he wrote on Twitter.