Historic Second Impeachment of Trump Gets Underway

While a conviction seems unlikely, Democratic lawmakers seek accountability for the former president’s instigation of the mob that stormed the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walks with Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 9.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walks with Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 9. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Rep. Sara Jacobs had been a member of Congress for four days when a violent pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Hours after escaping the House chambers that rioters breached and huddling in a safe room, she went back to her office. The first thing she did when she got there was issue a public call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. 

Now, a month after the violence that bookended Trump’s tumultuous four years in office, the Senate is following through on those calls with a historic second impeachment trial against the former president. Proceedings are set to begin on Tuesday.

The trial will prompt lawmakers to revisit the Jan. 6 violence and set a new course for U.S. politics, establishing how and when Congress can hold a former president accountable for his actions and defining the fault lines in the Republican Party as it grapples with whether to embrace or ditch Trump in coming elections. 

Jacobs, who worked on conflict stabilization issues at the State Department and United Nations before running for Congress, also argued that convicting Trump could head off future political violence. “You need the highest level of accountability the first time you have a violent incident like this or else you’re much more likely to have future instances of violence,” said Jacobs, the freshman Democrat from California. 

House Democrats and a small number of Republicans have endorsed the impeachment proceedings. They argue Trump incited the mob that ransacked the Capitol after refusing to accept the election results and doubling down on baseless claims of election fraud at a rally near the Capitol that presaged the violence.

Many other Republican lawmakers have rebuffed those charges, casting the impeachment trial as a partisan political performance. Some Republican lawmakers argue Trump does not shoulder the blame for the mob’s violence. Others say he does share some blame but his actions don’t warrant a post hoc impeachment, or they question the constitutionality of such a trial. 

Like Trump’s first impeachment trial, the outcome appears preordained. Voting to convict Trump on charges of inciting violence will require two-thirds of the chamber—67 votes. The chamber is evenly divided, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, and few see a pathway to getting 17 Republicans to turn on their party’s former boss who still dominates their identity and platform. 

All the political debates, disputes, and internecine party warfare that revolve around the upcoming trial are domestic. But Jacobs also sees the impact of the trial as global. 

“We’ve lost our ability to actually encourage other countries and work with them as they’re having political violence and electoral issues,” Jacobs said, adding that it was important to “rebuild our standing around the world and regain a lot of our soft power that’s been lost over the past four years and especially on Jan. 6.”

Some foreign leaders have expressed similar sentiments. “We are used to believing that the United States has the ideal democratic institutions, where power is transferred calmly,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Axios in an interview last month. “After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy.”

The impeachment proceedings, scheduled to begin on Tuesday afternoon, are expected to last about a week, with lawmakers on both sides urging a speedy trial. Trump is the third U.S. president to face impeachment, the first ex-president to face impeachment (though not the first former senior government official), and the first president to be impeached twice.

In the opening round in the Senate, Trump’s defense team will argue that the trial itself is unconstitutional as Trump has left office. “The Senate is being asked to do something patently ridiculous: Try a private citizen in a process that is designed to remove him from an office that he no longer holds,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in a 78-page brief they sent to the Senate on Monday.

Some of Trump’s most important allies in the Senate, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, have endorsed this argument and doubled down on complaints that he is facing unfair and politically fueled attacks after leaving office. 

Others have pushed back. Nearly 150 constitutional law scholars released an open letter last month arguing that the Senate can conduct an impeachment trial on a former president. Chuck Cooper, a prominent conservative attorney who has represented former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, also argued that the U.S. Constitution does not bar the impeachment trial of a former president.

There is some historical precedent from the 18th and 19th centuries: Sen. William Blount in 1797 and U.S. Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876 were both impeached after leaving office. 

Trump has remained conspicuously quiet since leaving the White House. The former president was barred from many social media platforms after the Jan. 6 violence but has also not conducted any major interviews ahead of the trial.

President Joe Biden has remained largely silent as well, demurring when pressed by reporters on the matter. He declined to say whether the Senate should vote to convict Trump during a recent interview with CBS News.

“Look, I ran like hell to defeat him because I thought he was unfit to be president,” Biden said. “But I’m not in the Senate now. … I’ll let the Senate make that decision.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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