The historic and rapid second impeachment of President Donald Trump came and went in a week. But the larger ramifications of the House’s decision to impeach the President in his final days in office are just beginning to unfold.
In the upcoming days, the Senate — mainly the incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — will have to grapple with how best to handle an impeachment trial. The questions about how long the trial will be, when it will be held, how it will be structured? We don’t have those answers right now and that’s because those decisions haven’t been made.
Bottom line: The next several days are going to begin to feel different in Washington. While thousands of National Guard troops sleep on the marble floors of the Capitol and stand at the dozens of entrances surrounding the complex, a new President is about to be inaugurated. A new Democratic majority is about to take control of the Senate. The dynamics that have governed the last four years? They’re coming to an end. And, it’s going to take some time to understand how that shifting force is going to impact the impeachment trial of a soon-to-be former President.
What to watch: Signals and senators
The House and Senate are gone.
But be on the lookout for any signals that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are having conversations about impeachment. One of the key dynamics that will govern whether senators push forward with an impeachment trial at the beginning of President-elect Joe Biden’s presidency or whether they wait is going to be whether Republicans agree to allow some of Biden’s nominees to move quickly through their confirmation processes in the mornings before the trial. Multiple sources have told CNN that there isn’t a clear signal yet whether Republicans would allow the kind of dual-tracking Senate trial that Biden has suggested he’d like to see.
Also, keep your eye on the statements coming from Republican senators: Over the next several days, some Republicans senators will make it very clear where they stand on impeachment. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans from South Carolina, have done that. Last night, Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, did it too. Cotton said that after Trump leaves office, “the Senate lacks constitutional authority to conduct impeachment proceedings against a former President.”
Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio who is up for reelection in 2022, said his decision with be based off of not only the evidence he hears, but “among my considerations will be what is best to help heal our country rather than deepen our divisions.”
A reminder that Republicans must have 17 members vote “yes” to convict Trump in the Senate. All eyes have been on what McConnell decides. Multiple GOP aides have told CNN that McConnell’s decision will certainly have an impact on the conference. But, it’s also important to remember that while McConnell has a lot of influence, he’s not going to be whipping members on a vote like this. And, for members in states where Trump is popular, McConnell’s vote may not sway them at all.
That doesn’t mean members are not obsessing about where McConnell falls on this. In fact, multiple Republican members and aides CNN has spoken to in recent days have wondered why McConnell has stayed as quiet as he has. Members are asking each other what their leader is thinking. CNN asked a series of Republican senators if they’d heard from McConnell in recent days on this topic and aside from the conference-wide note he sent on Wednesday, all of the members and aides said McConnell has been giving members their space to think through this on their own.
What we know
A Senate impeachment trial is not going to start until January 20 at the earliest.
McConnell is not bringing the Senate back. In his note to colleagues Wednesday, McConnell said “while the press has been full of speculation, I have not made a final decision on how I will vote, and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate.”
What we don’t know
This list is a long one. We don’t know when the trial will start. We don’t know how long it is going to be.
As CNN reported last night, House managers met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday night to begin laying out the way the trial could go, but no decisions have been made about whether they would collect evidence or bring witnesses: two things that could extend when a trial would begin in the Senate. In other words, the next few days are going to be about trying to get clarity on those two questions.
While Democrats pushed hard to impeach Trump in the House, the reality of what a trial could mean for the opening days of Biden’s Presidency is just sinking in. Senate Democrats are still all over the map, according to several members and aides. And, Biden isn’t talking much to rank-and-file members about what he wants to see. So much of the timing of the trial will be based on whether McConnell and Schumer can work out an agreement that gives Biden time in the mornings to get some of his nominees. Again, anything in the Senate can move swiftly with agreement. Without it, the Senate is an excessively deliberate body.