Senate Balances Impeachment Trial With an Incoming President

Senate Balances Impeachment Trial With an Incoming President

WASHINGTON — A day after the House impeached President Trump for inciting a violent insurrection at the Capitol, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were developing plans on Thursday to try the departing president at the same time as they begin considering the agenda of the incoming one.

Democrats, poised to take unified power in Washington next week for the first time in a decade, worked with Republican leaders to try to find a proposal to allow the Senate to split time between the impeachment trial of Mr. Trump and consideration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s cabinet nominees and his $1.9 trillion economic recovery plan to address the coronavirus.

“It’s far from ideal, no question,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. But, he said, “a dual track is perfectly doable if there is a will to make it happen.”

He said a trial would be straightforward.

“The evidence is Trump’s own words, recorded on video,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “It’s a question of whether Republicans want to step up and face history.”

Although Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has privately told advisers that he approves of the impeachment drive and believes it could help his party purge itself of Mr. Trump, he refused to begin the proceedings this week while he is still in charge. That means the trial will not effectively start until after Mr. Biden is sworn in on Wednesday, officials involved in the planning said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has discretion over when to transmit the article of impeachment, formally initiating the Senate proceeding. Some Democrats said she might wait until Monday, Jan. 25, or longer to allow more time for the Senate to put in place Mr. Biden’s national security team to respond to continued threats of violence from pro-Trump extremists.

With Republicans fractured after the president’s bid to overturn the election inspired a rampage, many of them were trying to gauge the dynamics of a vote to convict Mr. Trump. Doing so would open the door to disqualifying him from holding office in the future.

A cautionary tale was playing out in the House, where a faction of Mr. Trump’s most ardent allies was working to topple Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, from her leadership post. Ms. Cheney had joined nine other members of the party who voted with Democrats to charge the president with “incitement of insurrection.”

Most Senate Republicans stayed publicly silent about their positions. But Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska and one of the president’s leading critics, signaled on Thursday that she was among a small group in her party so far considering convicting Mr. Trump. In a stinging statement, she called his actions “unlawful,” saying they warranted consequences, and added that the House had acted appropriately in impeaching him.

Though she did not commit to finding the president guilty, saying she would listen carefully to the arguments on both sides, she strongly suggested that she was inclined to do so.

“On the day of the riots, President Trump’s words incited violence, which led to the injury and deaths of Americans — including a Capitol Police officer — the desecration of the Capitol, and briefly interfered with the government’s ability to ensure a peaceful transfer of power,” Ms. Murkowski said.

Ms. Murkowski joined a small group of other Republicans — including Senators Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine — who have said they hold the president responsible for the siege and will weigh the impeachment charge. Mr. Romney was the only Republican last year to vote to convict Mr. Trump when the House impeached him for pressuring Ukraine to incriminate Mr. Biden.

Mr. McConnell has indicated to colleagues that he is undecided about whether to convict Mr. Trump — a stark departure from his outspoken opposition last year to the House’s first impeachment case. He told advisers that he believed the president committed impeachable offenses, though he, too, wanted to hear the arguments at trial.

But it remained unclear whether the 17 Republican senators whose votes would be needed to convict Mr. Trump by the requisite two-thirds majority would agree to find him guilty. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, worked feverishly to whip up opposition to a conviction, arguing that it would only further inflame a dangerously divided nation.

With Mr. McConnell sending mixed signals about where he would come down, Republican strategists and senior aides on Capitol Hill believed he could ultimately swing the result one way or another.

If the Senate did convict, it could proceed to disqualify Mr. Trump from holding office again with only a simple majority vote, a prospect motivating some on both sides.

Senators considering breaking with the president needed to look no further than Ms. Cheney to understand the risks.

In a petition being privately circulated among Republicans on Capitol Hill, a group of lawmakers led by Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, the chairman of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, and Matt Rosendale of Montana, claimed that Ms. Cheney’s vote to impeach the president had “brought the conference into disrepute and produced discord.” It noted that as they argued in favor of charging Mr. Trump on Wednesday, Democrats had cited Ms. Cheney’s support for impeachment “multiple times.”

“One of those 10 cannot be our leader,” Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, said Wednesday evening in an interview on Fox News’s “Hannity,” referring to the group of Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump. “It is untenable, unsustainable, and we need to make a leadership change.”

Calling hers a “vote of conscience,” Ms. Cheney brushed aside calls to step down on Wednesday, saying, “I’m not going anywhere.” An unlikely group of hawkish traditionalists and conservative hard-liners have rushed to defend her.

“As we figure out where Republicans go from here, we need Liz’s leadership,” Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, said, praising her for being “unafraid to clearly state and defend her views” even if they were unpopular. “We must be a big-tent party, or else condemn ourselves to irrelevance.”

Representative Chip Roy of Texas, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said that she “should be commended, not condemned, for standing up in defense of the Constitution and standing true to her beliefs.” Mr. Roy has passionately lobbied in favor of terminating the military conflicts in the Middle East; Ms. Cheney is a noted hawk.

Ms. Cheney was not the only top Republican facing internal criticism, though. Some lawmakers — especially those new to Congress, who have faced hard choices and events during their first days — were privately upset that Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, the top two leaders, had provided little guidance about how to approach last week’s votes on overturning Mr. Biden’s victory, and on the impeachment itself.

In the Senate, leaders were facing a daunting set of questions about the trial with little history to guide them. The House has never impeached a president so close to the end of his term, and no former president has ever been tried in the Senate.

Some Republicans, led by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, pointed to those precedents to argue that the chamber did not have jurisdiction to try Mr. Trump, but many legal scholars appeared to disagree.

Democrats faced the vexing task of trying to manage a trial just as Mr. Biden will take office, and as they claim control of the chamber. Once the House formally sends its article to the Senate, a trial must commence almost immediately and rules dictate that all other business come to a near immediate halt and remain frozen until a verdict is reached.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, worked on Thursday to agree with Mr. McConnell on trial rules that could get around those strictures. The goal was to divide the Senate’s days so the chamber could work on confirming members of Mr. Biden’s cabinet and considering his stimulus package in the morning and then take up the impeachment trial in the afternoon.

“Everything we are talking about is being invented out of whole cloth,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “We have never tried a president after they left office. We’ve never had an insurrection against the Capitol. We’ve never held a trial while we are confirming a cabinet. All of this is first impression.”

Still, Democrats were adamant they would make it work.

“I can see no reason we cannot find a way with our archaic rules,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota.

The nine House impeachment managers, appointed by Ms. Pelosi to prosecute the case in the Senate, convened their own strategy meeting on Thursday. The case in hand was hastily put together over only a few days, with its factual underpinnings drawn exclusively from the public record.

The managers must now decide whether to try to expand that record at trial, requesting witnesses and documents to better understand Mr. Trump’s role in prompting the riot and his response to it. News reports have suggested that the president watched the rampage play out on television as lawmakers trapped on Capitol Hill called begging for assistance, and that he hesitated to approve sending in reinforcements.

Others, though, were arguing for holding a snap trial, much like the House’s vote, to force Republican senators to go on the record about Mr. Trump’s behavior before the passage of time diminished public outrage about the siege or their resolve to punish him for it.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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