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Opening arguments to start in trial of Trump

By ZHAO HUANXIN in Washington | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-02-10 12:14
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File photo: US President Donald Trump looks on at the end of his speech during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by the US Congress, in Washington on Jan 6, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

Opening arguments in the historic impeachment trial of former US president Donald Trump will start Wednesday after the Senate voted to approve its constitutionality, but a conviction will be "highly unlikely", experts say.

Six GOP senators joined all the Democrats in the Senate to vote in favor of allowing the first trial of a former president to take place.

The 56-44 vote came after House impeachment managers and Trump's defense team spent four hours debating whether a president who is out of office can be subject to a Senate trial.

Democratic lawmakers showed a clamorous video, which interspersed images of the Jan 6 Capitol violence and clips of Trump's speech to a crowd of supporters moments earlier, urging them to "fight like hell" to overturn his Nov 3 election defeat.

"If that's not an impeachment offense, then there is no such thing," Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, who led a team of nine House members prosecuting the case, told the assembled senators after showing the video.

Trump's lawyers argued that the proceeding was an unconstitutional, partisan effort to close off his political future even after he had already departed the White House.

"What they really want to accomplish here in the name of the Constitution is to bar Donald Trump from ever running for political office again, but this is an affront to the Constitution no matter who they target today," David Schoen, one of Trump's lawyers, told senators.

Another lawyer, Bruce Castor, said the storming of the Capitol by hundreds of people "should be denounced in the most vigorous terms", but argued that "a small group of criminals", not Trump, were responsible for the violence.

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who had voted to block the trial on constitutional grounds last month, said, "The House managers made a compelling, cogent case. And the president's team did not."

He was the only Republican to switch sides on Tuesday.

"A sufficient amount of evidence of constitutionality exists for the Senate to proceed with the trial," Cassidy said in a statement later Tuesday, adding, "This vote is not a prejudgment on the final vote to convict."

Because Senate conviction requires a two-thirds majority, it is highly unlikely that 67 senators will line up against the former president, according to William Banks, distinguished professor emeritus at the Syracuse University College of Law in New York.

"The main explanation for Republican senators' support is their belief or fear that Trump continues to control the national party and that many Republican voters do (believe that), too," Banks told China Daily.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist and historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, also said Trump is likely to be acquitted of inciting insurrection.

"Most Republican senators are loath to alienate the base of Republican voters that still support Trump unless they absolutely have to and the claim that the Constitution precludes impeaching and convicting a former president makes just enough sense to allow most of them to vote 'no'," he said.

Both Republicans and Democrats want the trial to be over quickly, as Republicans "would no longer have to defend the indefensible", and Democrats could move on to Biden's agenda, especially the massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, according to Jillson.

He also said Trump's legacy was minimal before the Jan 6 Capitol attack and is "in tatters" today.

"While Republicans continue to tout tax cuts, Middle East peace initiatives, criminal justice reforms and vaccine development, Trump's legacy will begin and end with his unwillingness to abide by the 2020 election results and his role in the Capitol riots," he said in an email.

Stanley Renshon, a political scientist at City University of New York, said the trial proceedings won't affect the Biden administration's agenda. "They will plunge ahead," he said.

For Trump himself, Renshon argued that the impeachment won't dissuade him in any way and will more likely make him want to "show them" by throwing himself into an effort to defeat Democrats in 2022 and 2024.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday he wouldn't watch the trial because his priority is to focus on governing the country, not the fate of his predecessor's legacy. "Look, I told you before, I have a job," Biden said, noting that more than 450,000 people in the US have died from COVID-19.

"The Senate has their job; they're about to begin it. I'm sure they're going to conduct themselves well," Biden said. "That's all I am going to say about impeachment."

Trump is only the third president in US history to be impeached, and the only one to be impeached twice. He was first impeached by the Democratic-led House in January last year.

Reuters contributed to this story.

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