Democrats in the US House of Representatives are pushing for a quick Senate impeachment trial for Donald Trump over the riots at the Capitol, arguing a full reckoning is necessary before the country — and Congress — can move on.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could send the article charging the former President with "incitement of insurrection" to the Senate as soon as this week, setting up a near immediate trial. Democrats say lawmakers can move quickly because they were all witnesses to the siege, many fleeing for safety as the rioters descended on the Capitol.
"It will be soon, I don't think it will be long, but we must do it," Pelosi said. She argued that Trump doesn't deserve a "get out of jail card" in his historic second impeachment just because he has left office and President Joe Biden and others are calling for national unity. Without the White House counsel's office to defend him — as it did in his first trial last year — Trump's allies have been searching for lawyers to argue his case.
Members of his past legal teams have indicated they do not plan to join the effort, but South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told GOP colleagues on Thursday that Trump was hiring attorney Butch Bowers. Prosecuting the House case will be Pelosi's nine impeachment managers, who have been regularly meeting to discuss strategy. Pelosi said she would talk to them "in the next few days" about when the Senate might be ready for a trial, indicating the decision could stretch into next week.
Trump told thousands of supporters to "fight like hell" against the election results that Congress was certifying on January 6 just before an angry mob invaded the Capitol and interrupted the count. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the mayhem, and the House impeached the outgoing president a week later. Ten Republicans joined all Democrats in support.
Pelosi said it would be "harmful to unity" to forget that "people died here on January 6, the attempt to undermine our election, to undermine our democracy, to dishonour our Constitution."
Though Pelosi can trigger the trial by transmitting the article to the Senate — a process that in the past involved impeachment managers walking the charges across the Capitol — the timing of the trial could also depend on discussions between the Senate's Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who are negotiating how to run the newly divided 50-50 Senate.
Democrats are hoping to conduct the proceedings while passing legislation that is a priority for Biden, including coronavirus relief, but they would need cooperation from Senate Republicans to do that. Schumer told reporters Thursday that he was still negotiating with McConnell on how to conduct the trial, "but make no mistake about it. There will be a trial, there will be a vote, up or down or whether to convict the President." McConnell is proposing to push back the start of the trial by a week or more to give the former president time to review the case.
Members of Trump's defence team are expected to be announced soon. Graham would not answer questions about Trump's representation on Capitol Hill on Thursday, but he told reporters that "I think he's going to get a legal team here pretty soon".
Trump was acquitted by the Senate last February after his White House legal team, aided by his personal lawyers, aggressively fought the House charges that he had encouraged the President of Ukraine to investigate Biden in exchange for military aid.
This time, Pelosi noted, the House is not seeking to convict the President over private conversations but for a very public insurrection they experienced themselves and that played out on live television.
"The whole world bore witness to the President's incitement," Pelosi said. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the No 2 Senate Democrat, said it was still too early to know how long a trial would take, or if Democrats would want to call witnesses. But he said "you don't need to tell us what was going on with the mob scene, we were rushing down the staircase to escape".
McConnell, who said this week that Trump "provoked" his supporters before the riot, has not said how he will vote. He told his GOP colleagues that it will be a vote of conscience. Democrats would need the support of at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump, a high bar.
A handful of Senate Republicans have indicated they are open to conviction, but most have said they believe a trial will be divisive and questioned the legality of trying a president who has left office.
Graham said that if he were Trump's lawyer, he would focus on that argument and also the merits of the case, whether it was "incitement" under the law. He agreed with Pelosi that a trial should be quick.
"I guess the public record is your television screen," Graham said. "So, I don't see why this would take a long time."