Donald Trump’s role in inciting the January 6 Capitol riot has led to a historic second impeachment, and to the first impeachment trial of a president after he’s left office. If the Senate votes to convict Trump, it could then invoke the constitutionally created sanction of “disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States” — meaning no 2024 comeback attempt. Here’s what we know about the context and schedule for this process.
Wednesday, January 13: Impeachment by the House
The House began debating impeachment on the morning of Wednesday, January 13 and voted to impeach Trump on a single article of “incitement to insurrection” after a brisk two-hour debate, even as Republicans complained about the speed of the process and the lack of the usual investigations and hearings (with Democrats replying that insurrectionary acts witnessed by the entire world didn’t need investigation). The vote was 232-197, with ten Republicans — and no Democrats — crossing party lines. In the first impeachment vote in December of 2019, no Republicans defected while two or three (depending on the particular article) Democrats opposed the measure.
Monday, January 25: Transmittal of article of impeachment to the Senate
Normally, the process of transmitting articles of impeachment from the House to the Senate is reasonably simple, though it does require appointment by the Speaker of impeachment “managers” (which in this case preceded the impeachment vote) who will present the case for impeachment in the Senate before and during the subsequent impeachment trial. It’s up to Nancy Pelosi to decide when to march the managers over to the Senate to “exhibit” the article and trigger a trial under the procedures set up in the upper chamber’s standing rules governing impeachment. After Trump’s first impeachment, Pelosi held back transmittal of the articles for nearly a month (from December 18, 2019 until January 15, 2020).
On January 22, however, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced on the Senate floor that Pelosi would send over the article on Monday, January 25.
Soon after that Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced an agreement (superseding the standing rules) for a trial to begin on or about February 9, a two-week delay.
Tuesday, January 26: Senators sworn in after a preliminary motion to dismiss
In a parliamentary maneuver that was something of a surprise, Senator Rand Paul offered a resolution just prior to the scheduled swearing in of senators for the trial challenging its constitutionality on grounds that Trump had already left office. 45 Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell, supported Paul’s position. This provided a very clear early signal that the 17 Republican votes needed for conviction in the Senate were not going to be available.
In a bit of an anticlimax, senators were administered an oath of impartiality, and a summons based on the article of impeachment was sent to Trump and his legal team. Normally the chief justice of the United States presides over the impeachment trial of a president (as did John Roberts in the first Trump trial in 2020), and would administer the oath to senators. But Roberts is said to believe he can skip this chore because Trump is no longer president, which means the vice-president can preside without the conflict of interest (a possible elevation to the presidency upon a conviction) that led the Founders to provide a role for the chief justice in a presidential trial. Vice-President Kamala Harris in turn delegated the presiding role to President Pro Tem Pat Leahy given the partisanship her prominent participation could suggest.
The Senate resumed regular business until the trial’s scheduled beginning on February 9.
February 2-8: Pre-trial briefs
Under the Schumer-McConnell agreement, Trump’s counsel responded to the article of impeachment (basically a plea, certain to be “not guilty”) and the House managers filed their pre-trial brief on February 2. Team Trump filed its pre-trial brief on February 8. No new ground was broken in any of these pleadings, with the House managers describing Trump’s conduct on (and immediately before) January 6 as an open-shut case of incitement of insurrection, and dismissing Republicans arguments that the Senate cannot convict a former president as inviting future abuses of power and allowing Trump to evade accountability. Trump’s lawyers rejected the constitutionality of the proceedings via a strict construction of the relevant constitutional language, rejecting any causal linkage between Trump’s speech on January 6 and the Capitol riot, and accused Democrats of exhibiting “fevered hatred of Citizen Trump.”
Tuesday, February 9: Trial begins with constitutional arguments
On the afternoon of February 8, Schumer and McConnell released a more detailed resolution governing the trial itself. It will begin at 12 p.m. on February 9 with both the House impeachment managers and Trump’s attorneys offering four hours of argument on the preliminary topic of whether “Donald John Trump is subject to the jurisdiction of a court of impeachment for acts committed while President of the United States, notwithstanding the expiration of his term in that office.” This, of course, is the topic raised by Senator Rand Paul’s January 26 motion to dismiss the article of impeachment. By nearly all accounts, the House impeachment managers outperformed Trump’s attorneys (particularly the rambling Bruce Castor), and the debate concluded with a 56-44 vote allowing the trial to proceed. The one Republican who flipped from the January 26 vote was Bill Cassidy of Lousiana.
Wednesday, February 10 - Friday, February 12: Arguments on substance of the article of impeachment
At noon on February 10, per the Schumer-McConnell resolution, each side was given a total of 16 hours of argument divided over two days (requiring a total of four days if fully utilized). The House impeachment managers held the floor for the first two days, though they concluded their presentation on February 11 with several hours of their time unused. Trump’s counsel used less than four hours of their time on February 12, and concluded their presentation.
Friday, February 12: Questioning by senators
Thanks to the brevity of Team Trump’s presentation, senators were able to begin a four-hour period for questioning the two teams of advocates on Friday. The questions are submitted in writing, addressed to one side or the other, or both sides. Some questions may involve serious efforts to tease out under-developed facts or arguments, though most will be high lobs aimed at giving the senators’s favored side a chance to reinforce talking points.
Saturday, February 13: Will Witnesses Be Called?
At this point it’s not entirely clear if the impeachment managers will pursue this option, though it seems unlikely. Trump’s lawyers, who want a quick acquittal, certainly won’t ask for witnesses or documents unless it’s in retaliation for Democratic insistence on thus lengthening the trial. If there is a motion for and arguments over expansion of the record, a Senate vote will immediately ensue, with a simple majority needed to prevail.
Even if the Senate decides against new witnesses and documents, the Schumer-McConnell agreement provides for introduction of documents already relied on by the parties in their earlier arguments. But if the Senate does allow for fresh evidence, the time required for deposition of witnesses, discovery (examination of the other side’s documents before a vote on its admission), and then debate and votes on admission of evidence will probably take multiple days. This is the main variable in how long the trial lasts.
Saturday, February 13 (tenatively): Final arguments and Verdict
If further evidence is excluded, each side will have two hours for concluding arguments. In the past, the Senate has sometimes gone into close “deliberation” sessions at this point, but in a case as cut-and-dried as this one, it’s very unlikely. At the close of final arguments, the Senate votes on conviction or acquittal, in the constitutionally prescribed method of each senator standing by her or his desk and saying “guilty” or “not guilty” without elaboration. A two-thirds vote is required for conviction. The only presidential trial in which there has been a lively prospect of that happening was Andrew Johnson’s in 1868. He was acquitted by a single vote.
Saturday, February 13 (if necessary): Vote on ban from future office
In the extremely unlikely event that Trump is convicted, the Senate will then take up a resolution to ban him from future office. This requires only a majority vote, but since it will be public, the Republican senators who may secretly wish Trump would go away will not dare help push him into oblivion.
This post has been updated throughout.