The historic second impeachment trial of Donald Trump opened in the US Senate on Tuesday, with prosecutors vowing to win a conviction based on the “cold, hard facts” of the January storming of the US Capitol.
Kicking off with days of argument on whether Trump incited insurrection on January 6 — the trial charges into the unprecedented constitutional territory as the first of a former president.
Prosecutors began by playing an extensive montage of a video showing Trump urging a crowd of his supporters to “fight like hell” — before the fired-up mob surged towards the Capitol and breached its barriers.
“Our case is based on cold, hard facts. It’s all about the facts,” lead House prosecutor Jamie Raskin told the trial.
Inside the ornate building, Democratic prosecutors will lay out a case heavily supported by video evidence that Trump deliberately stoked rage over his November reelection loss to Joe Biden, fed the country lies that the vote was rigged, then incited the Capitol riot.
“It’s our solemn constitutional duty to conduct a fair and honest impeachment trial of the charges against former president Trump — the gravest charges ever brought against a president of the United States in American history,” Democratic Majority leader Chuck Schumer declared as proceedings got underway.
The trial will make uncomfortable viewing for senators, including the many Republicans making clear they will not vote to convict Trump, but who had to flee to safety when the violent crowd surged through the Capitol that day.
Outside, thousands of National Guard troops deployed in the aftermath of the debacle continue to patrol, while hastily thrown up fences barricade the area from ordinary Americans — visible proof that the aftershocks of the Trump era continue to rumble.
Trump becomes the first president ever to face two impeachment trials — he was acquitted in 2020 of abuse of power — as well as the first in history to be tried after leaving office.
Trump’s legal team is basing its case largely on the procedural argument that a former president cannot be tried, calling the Senate trial “absurd.”
They also argue that whatever Trump said during his January 6 rally is protected by the constitutional right to free speech and did not amount to ordering the assault on Congress.
A second acquittal is all but certain for Trump, who is holed up in his luxury Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and, after being barred from Twitter, has spent the weeks since leaving office in near silence.
Democrats hold 50 of the 100 Senate seats and Vice President Kamala Harris is able to cast a tie-breaking vote. But it would take a two-thirds majority for a conviction, meaning at least 17 Republican senators would have to join.
– Polarized country –
With the country at its most polarized in at least half a century, the impeachment trial risks becoming a new flashpoint.
Amped up on four years of Trump’s populist claims to be fighting for ordinary people against the elites, huge numbers of Republican voters continue to support the ex-president, pushing their party ever further to the right.
However, Democrats are equally energized and polls show that a small majority of the country overall believes Trump deserves conviction. An Ipsos/ABC News poll found 56 per cent back this, while a Gallup poll found 52 per cent support.
It’s not clear yet how long the trial will last but it will be shorter than the three-week marathon of Trump’s first impeachment and could end as soon as next week.
First up will be up to four hours of debate, followed by a vote, on the constitutionality of trying an ex-president. This will almost certainly be just a formality as the Democrats have enough votes, but it will give an early indication of how open Republicans are to the case at all.
The main part of the trial will start Wednesday, with each side having 16 hours to present oral arguments.
Senators, who are the jurors, will then question the opposing legal teams.
A majority vote will be needed if either side wants to call witnesses. Trump, however, has already refused an invitation to testify.
Republican Senator Joni Ernst told AFP that he was ready to “listen,” but spoke for many others on his side when he added: “I don’t believe this to be constitutional. So we’re going through an exercise that I don’t believe meets the intent of our founders.”