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Impeachment Briefing: Quirks of the Trial

Email sent: Jan 14, 2020 6:28 pm

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Hear ye! Here's a look at some of the unusual customs in the Senate trial.

Welcome back to the Impeachment Briefing. With the Senate trial now imminent, we’re previewing the archaic, often quirky rules and procedures that make the event so unusual.

What happened today

  • The House will at last vote tomorrow to send the two impeachment articles to the Senate, allowing a trial of President Trump to start in the coming days. Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with House Democrats privately this morning to outline plans.
  • Ms. Pelosi said that before the House votes, she would appoint a team of impeachment managers at 10 a.m. tomorrow. House Democratic leaders have also been working behind the scenes with Republicans in the Senate and Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the trial, to determine the timing.
  • Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said today that he would put off considering the terms of the trial until early next week, when the Senate will vote on an organizing resolution setting up the procedures. He said the Senate would complete impeachment “housekeeping” this week ahead of the formal start of the trial.


What to expect from a highly ritualized trial

Tomorrow begins a fast-moving series of customs that formally initiate an impeachment trial. My colleague Nick Fandos wrote a helpful preview of those procedures. Here’s a look at some of what’s to come in the next week.


House managers: As we wrote yesterday, the managers will function as prosecutors would in a normal trial, arguing for why Mr. Trump should be removed from office for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Trump lawyers: Mr. Trump’s defense team will most likely be led by Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal lawyers. Two of Mr. Cipollone’s deputies will assist them.


The justice: Chief Justice Roberts will preside over the trial in a largely ceremonial role. (Read more about that here.)

Parliamentarian: Elizabeth MacDonough is the official adviser for the body on rules interpretations. Her staff sits on the Senate dais and advises on official conduct. At the trial, Ms. MacDonough will guide Chief Justice Roberts through his role.

Sergeant-at-arms: The Senate’s de facto security officer helps protects the members, keeps custody of the Senate gavel, escorts officials and enforces the rules.


At some point after the House votes tomorrow, a bound copy of the impeachment articles will be carried by the managers across the Capitol and delivered to the Senate chamber. One of the managers will read the two articles aloud from the well of the Senate.

The Senate must also send a summons notifying Mr. Trump of the articles and asking for his formal reply in writing.

And there will be a book of oaths! Chief Justice Roberts will ask senators to raise their right hands and agree to an oath to administer “impartial justice.” Then senators will one by one sign their names in a book attesting to the oath.


After opening statements, senators will have a chance to cross-examine the two sides. But you won’t hear them ask their questions: They will instead submit them in writing, and managers and lawyers will respond out loud in the Senate chamber.

At the House Democratic meeting this morning, Representative Adam Schiff, an expected impeachment manager, told members that the managers would most likely have 24 hours to present their case against Mr. Trump, spread over four days. The president’s lawyers would be given the same amount of time.


The Senate will vote on a resolution at the start of the trial that deals with the more mechanical questions, such as allotting speaking time for opening arguments and cross-examination. Mr. McConnell has already said he has 51 votes for the opening resolution.

Once the trial begins, Democrats can try to amend Mr. McConnell’s initial resolution, asking for witnesses and new evidence.

The case can actually be dismissed altogether with a majority vote — Mr. Trump this week said he wanted that outcome — but that’s extremely unlikely. “There is little to no sentiment in the Republican conference for a motion to dismiss,” Mr. McConnell told reporters today. “Our members feel that we have an obligation to listen to the arguments.”


Once the managers arrive in the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms will cry out, “Hear ye! Hear ye!” and give senators a warning: be quiet, or else. “All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment, while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against Donald John Trump, president of the United States.”

What else we’re reading

  • House Democrats tonight released dozens of pages of records from Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer. The file includes notes, text messages and a letter from Mr. Giuliani to the president of Ukraine written with the “consent” of Mr. Trump.
  • The Times reported last night that the Russian military has been hacking into Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company at the center of the impeachment drama, to locate potentially embarrassing material on Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. It is not yet clear what the hackers found, or precisely what they were searching for.
  • Politico reports that House Democrats are interested in incorporating video of Mr. Trump and witness testimony into the Senate trial. But they’ll need Mr. McConnell to agree, as video equipment is prohibited on the Senate floor.
  • Senior White House officials told CBS News that they increasingly believe at least four Republican senators will vote to allow witnesses in the trial, meaning John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, could get a chance to testify.
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