WASHINGTON — A mere 60 minutes after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in Wednesday, his predecessor is slated to stand trial in the Senate on a charge of inciting a riot in the same building.
The remarkable timing of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is driven in part by Senate rules. A trial must begin at 1 p.m. the day after the Senate receives the article of impeachment. But the Senate won’t be in session to receive the articles until Jan. 19. Although Democrats want to move up that date, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has refused.
If that stands, it could create a split-screen unlike any before, perhaps befitting the end of Trump’s unconventional presidency. Biden, who comes into office with aspirations of bipartisanship, will take the oath just as senators begin to consider whether to convict the previous president and bar him from future office.
Democrats and Republicans are already discussing whether it is a good idea to hold the two events on the same day. But delaying the trial would require consent of all 100 senators, a move that has been exceedingly difficult in recent years, never mind under the heightened tensions of the transition and the Jan. 6 attack by Trump supporters on their workplace.
And in addition to agreeing on a delay, they will need to decide for how long, a more difficult question. Moving the trial a day, a week or month carries political consequences that are likely to divide the parties.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could change that timeline by holding the article of impeachment in the House for several days or weeks, as she did after Trump’s first impeachment. But doing so could undermine the Democrats’ message that Trump is a danger; Democratic leadership has resisted it.
Barring any kind of agreement to change the timing or Pelosi holding the articles, House managers will walk across the Capitol to deliver and possibly read the article aloud in the Senate, and a trial will get underway the next day.
Conviction requires support from two-thirds of the 100 senators. But because Trump will already be out of office — the primary purpose of an impeachment conviction — the more impactful decision will be whether the Senate also chooses to bar him from holding future office, which requires a simple majority vote.
The Senate is likely to first confront whether it can legally hold the trial at all. Republicans are already raising questions about whether it is constitutional to try to convict a president who is out of office.
“The Senate lacks constitutional authority to conduct impeachment proceedings against a former president,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said. “The founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office — not an inquest against private citizens.”