What to expect at Trump’s Senate impeachment trial

President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial kicks off in earnest this week, with the action on the Senate floor beginning Tuesday at 1 pm Eastern. And that means that soon, we’ll finally see the prosecution (the House impeachment managers) and the defense (Trump’s legal team) make their cases on whether Trump should be removed from office.

It’s a historic moment, as it’s only the third impeachment trial in American history — yet unless something dramatic changes, Trump appears to be on the road to an acquittal, due to the chamber’s Republican majority.

The first order of business for the Senate Tuesday will be to vote on a resolution laying out a plan and procedures for the first phase of the trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan, which it currently looks like he has the votes to pass, would allot 24 hours for opening arguments for each side , and 16 hours for senators can submit questions. Only after all that is done, in McConnell’s plan, would the Senate attempt to resolve the contentious issue of whether to subpoena witnesses for testimony.

Senate Democrats have demanded that Republicans agree to subpoena four witnesses with knowledge of Trump’s efforts to block military aid to Ukraine for testimony as the trial kicks off — but Republicans have refused, and are punting on the issue for now. But Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will likely force a vote on the witness issue this week, so expect some grandstanding.

Once these initial votes are done, opening arguments will begin. The House impeachment managers — Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Val Demings (D-FL), and Jason Crow (D-CO) — will present their case over several days. Their case will probably be familiar from what they’ve said in the House, but it could rely on some new evidence, such as documents recently obtained from Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas.

Then Trump’s legal team — White House counsel Pat Cipollone, White House Counsel’s Office attorneys Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, White House adviser Pam Bondi, Trump’s personal attorneys Jay Sekulow and Jane Raskin, and outside attorneys Ken Starr, Robert Ray, and Alan Dershowitz — will present their opening arguments. Trump’s team didn’t engage in the House process, so what to expect from them is less clear, though they will naturally assert the president did nothing wrong.

From here on out, the trial is expected to take place six days a week (all but Sunday), starting at 1 pm Eastern each day, though the Senate can alter that schedule. It’s expected to last at least two weeks, and could take longer. You can watch it on C-SPAN 2 or probably pretty much any news network, and we’ll embed a livestream in this post as well.

How the Senate impeachment trial works

Last month, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump — that is, to charge him with high crimes and misdemeanors that merit his removal from the presidency. Specifically, the House approved two articles of impeachment:

  • Article I, “Abuse of Power,” accuses Trump of pressuring the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation into the Bidens by withholding both a White House meeting and military aid.
  • Article II, “Obstruction of Congress,” accuses Trump of trying to impede the impeachment inquiry by urging government agencies not to comply with subpoenas and witnesses not to cooperate.

But it’s up to the Senate to decide whether Trump is guilty of each of these charges — and whether he should, in fact, be ousted from the presidency. So that’s what this trial will focus on.

It will contain many of the trappings of an ordinary criminal trial, with a “prosecution” and “defense,” Chief Justice John Roberts sitting there to preside, and the Senate as a mostly silent jury — though, unlike an ordinary jury, they will also determine the scope, length, and structure of the trial, and can overrule any decision by Roberts with a majority vote.

All the proceedings on the Senate floor will be televised. However, there will be some differences from ordinary congressional hearings. For instance, senators mostly cannot speak and will have to submit their questions for the prosecution and defense in writing, to be read out by Chief Justice Roberts. It is also possible that if witnesses are subpoenaed for testimony, the questioning will occur behind closed doors (that’s how it happened in 1999, though it was videotaped).

At the end of the road will be a final vote on each article of impeachment. Crucially, conviction requires a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate — a simple majority won’t do the trick. That means it would take 67 senators to convict Trump, and since there are only 47 Democrats in the chamber, that’s a very high bar to clear so long as nearly all Republicans keep standing by Trump.

Still, a vote to convict on even one article would oust Trump from office, and make Vice President Mike Pence the president of the United States.

For more on the mechanics of the Senate impeachment trial, check out our longer explainer.