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What It’s Like to Manage an Impeachment Trial in the U.S. Senate

Clinton impeachment manager Bill McCollom Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

For better or worse, seven Democratic members of Congress are about to become famous. After being appointed on Wednesday as the impeachment managers by Nancy Pelosi to prosecute the case against Donald Trump in the Senate, they will have less than a week to prepare for trial and then argue their case before a global television audience in a courtroom unlike any other, with the highest possible stakes.

Judge James Rogan, an impeachment manager in the Clinton investigation, recalled to New York what went through his mind as he stood up to give the opening statement then. “I’m trying this case. The president of the United States is my defendant. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is my trial court judge. One hundred senators are my jury, and this is on live television with maybe billion people watching and, if in the next 30 days or so, I say anything stupid my grandkids are going to be watching it on the History Channel,” Rogan said.

However, the chief justice isn’t quite a judge and 100 senators are something more than a jury. As former Clinton impeachment manager Bill McCollum pointed out, the Senate is made up of “very sophisticated people certainly [aware of] what happened in the House” — as opposed to a standard jury, “where they don’t come in with any knowledge.” Instead, the senators can vote on the rules and change them at will. Rogan compared it to a criminal case in which jurors could overturn objections from a judge at will.

The other difference is that the nominal jury may not be the key audience in the trial. “The jury in a presidential impeachment is theoretically the Senate, but practically speaking, it is the American people speaking through the polls,” said Rogan.

When he was managing the case, the former California Republican said, he was “very mindful when the robotic camera swung my way every time I opened my mouth that was where the jury was, not the 100 senators.”

Clinton impeachment manager James Rogan. Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images

However, not all his managers from the Clinton trial agreed with that approach. McCollum argued, “While you may be appealing to public, at the same time, you’re talking to senators and that’s who you should be focused on.” In an impeachment trial, where 51 senators are needed to clear procedural rulings but 67 are needed to convict, managers will need to find a certain balance in which audience they try to persuade.

Of the seven managers picked by Pelosi to handle the case in the Senate — all of whom are elected members of the House — two of the seven are familiar from impeachment hearings: Adam Schiff of California, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Jerry Nadler of New York’s tenth district and chair of the Judiciary Committee. The other five are comparatively less well known: Hakeem Jefferies, the fifth-ranking Democrat in House leadership; California’s Zoe Lofgren is a veteran of the Clinton impeachment also served as a staffer during Watergate; Val Demings is the former chief of police in Orlando; and Sylvia Garcia and Jason Crow, of Texas and Colorado, respectively, are both freshmen.

The current crew. Sylvia Garcia, second from the left, told Intelligencer: “I didn’t seek to be a manager.” Photo: Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Maryland representative Dutch Ruppersberger praised Pelosi for “picking a very competent and very diverse group.” A former prosecutor himself, he noted the importance having Schiff, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, in a leadership position because he “knows how to try cases and knows to cross examine.”

The selection process for the managers was very different than the one used for the Clinton impeachment. Then, it was in the hands of Henry Hyde, the chair of the Judiciary Committee at the time, who selected 13 members to lead the prosecution in the Senate. His criteria, according to Rogan, involved not just picking those he wanted to manage the case but almost everyone on his committee who asked. The only person Hyde turned down was then-Representative Elton Gallegly of California, because he had not gone to law school. “If Elton had gone to law school, we would have had 14 managers,” Rogan said.

The challenge for the group is how to prepare for the trial with a week’s notice. Garcia told reporters that she only found out she would be named an impeachment manager the day before. The first-term Democrat from Texas told New York that she received the news with “some mixed emotion, kind of like sad and somber.” “This is an impeachment of a president of the United States,” Garcia said. “I didn’t come here to impeach a president. I didn’t seek to be a manager.”

She joins a team that has to prepare for a full trial in a courtroom that isn’t a courtroom. They have to prepare to cross-examine witnesses without any assurances that they will be able to call witnesses, and try to bring up evidence in a trial that isn’t governed by the federal rules of evidence. And, of course, they may get live feedback from the defendant on Twitter.

What It’s Like to Manage an Impeachment Trial in the Senate