WASHINGTON - House Democrats delivered the impeachment case against Donald Trump to the Senate for the start of his historic trial, but Republican senators were easing off their criticism of the former president and shunning calls to convict him over the deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol.
It's an early sign of Trump's enduring sway over the party.
The nine House prosecutors carried the sole impeachment charge of "incitement of insurrection" across the Capitol on Monday night in a solemn and ceremonial march to the Senate along the same halls the rioters ransacked just weeks ago. In a scene reminiscent of just a year ago — Trump is the first president twice impeached — the lead House prosecutor, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, stood before the Senate to read the House resolution charging "high crimes and misdemeanors."
But Republican denunciations of Trump have cooled since the Jan. 6 riot. Instead Republicans are presenting a tangle of legal arguments against the legitimacy of the trial and questioning whether Trump's repeated demands to overturn Joe Biden's election really amounted to incitement.
What seemed for some Democrats like an open-and-shut case that played out for the world on live television, as Trump encouraged a rally mob to "fight like hell" for his presidency, is running into a Republican Party that feels very differently. Not only are there legal concerns, but senators are wary of crossing the former president and his legions of followers — who are their voters. Security remains tight at the Capitol.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked if Congress starts holding impeachment trials of former officials, what's next: "Could we go back and try President Obama?"
Besides, he suggested, Trump has already been held to account. "One way in our system you get punished is losing an election."
Arguments in the Senate trial will begin the week of Feb. 8, and the case against Trump, the first former president to face impeachment trial, will test a political party still sorting itself out for the post-Trump era. Republican senators are balancing the demands of deep-pocketed donors who are distancing themselves from Trump and voters who demand loyalty to him. One Republican, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, announced Monday he would not seek reelection in 2022, citing the polarized political atmosphere.
For Democrats the tone, tenor and length of the upcoming trial, so early in Biden's presidency, poses its own challenge, forcing them to strike a balance between their vow to hold Trump accountable and their eagerness to deliver on the new administration's priorities following their sweep of control of the House, Senate and White House.
Biden himself told CNN late Monday that the impeachment trial "has to happen." While acknowledging the effect it could have on his agenda, he said there would be "a worse effect if it didn’t happen." He said he didn't think enough Republican senators would vote to convict, though he said the outcome might have been different if Trump had six months left in his term.
"The Senate has changed since I was there, but it hasn't changed that much," Biden told the network.
Chief Justice John Roberts is not expected to preside at the trial, as he did during Trump’s first impeachment, potentially affecting the gravitas of the proceedings. The shift is said to be in keeping with protocol because Trump is no longer in office.
Instead, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., who serves in the largely ceremonial role of Senate president pro tempore, is set to preside.
Leaders in both parties agreed to a short delay in the proceedings that serves their political and practical interests, even as National Guard troops remain at the Capitol amid security threats on lawmakers ahead of the trial.
The start date gives Trump’s new legal team time to prepare its case, while also providing more than a month's distance from the passions of the bloody riot. For the Democratic-led Senate, the intervening weeks provide prime time to confirm some of Biden’s key Cabinet nominees.
An early vote to dismiss the trial probably would not succeed, given that Democrats now control the Senate. The House approved the charge against Trump on Jan. 13, with 10 Republicans joining the Democrats.
Mounting Republican opposition to the proceedings indicates that many GOP senators will eventually vote to acquit Trump. Democrats would need the support of 17 Republicans — a high bar — to convict him.
Rand Paul of Kentucky said that without the chief justice presiding the proceedings are a "sham." Joni Ernst of Iowa said that while Trump "exhibited poor leadership," it's those who assaulted the Capitol who "bear the responsibility." New Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said Trump is one of the reasons he is in the Senate, so "I’m proud to do everything I can for him."
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is among those who say the Senate does not have the constitutional authority to convict a former president.
Democrats reject that argument, pointing to an 1876 impeachment of a secretary of war who had already resigned and to opinions by many legal scholars. Democrats also say that a reckoning of the first invasion of the Capitol since the War of 1812, perpetrated by rioters egged on by a president as Electoral College votes were being tallied, is necessary.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said failing to conduct the trial would amount to a "get-out-jail-free card" for others accused of wrongdoing on their way out the door. He said there’s only one question "senators of both parties will have to answer before God and their own conscience: Is former President Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection against the United States?"
A few GOP senators have agreed with Democrats, though not close to the number that will be needed to convict Trump.
Mitt Romney of Utah said he believes "what is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offense. ... If not, what is?" Romney was the only Republican senator to vote for conviction when the Senate acquitted Trump in his first impeachment trial.