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Trump trial set to consume Capitol

The Hill logo The Hill 2/8/2021 Jonathan Easley
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Trump trial set to consume Capitol © Getty Images Trump trial set to consume Capitol

Former President Trump's second impeachment will consume Washington this week, putting the Trump era on trial and GOP divisions on full display.

Trump, who has been nearly invisible since leaving office and getting booted from the social media platforms, will once again be the biggest story in the country.

The former president will not testify at his trial, but the hearings will draw the spotlight on an ugly few weeks in American history that culminated with the deadly siege on the Capitol building by a mob of Trump supporters.

Many Republicans are deeply ashamed of that episode and believe Trump was at least partly responsible for whipping the crowd into a frenzy around his unsupported claims that the election was stolen from him.

However, Senate Republicans are expected to acquit Trump for a second time, arguing that it is unconstitutional to impeach a former president and that the bar for establishing incitement is high.

Still, the trial will expose the deep rift inside a Republican Party that is struggling to find its way in the post-Trump era.

The GOP is torn between a conservative base that is loyal to Trump and the traditional wing that sees Trumpism as a political death spiral.

"No one has any idea about what the Republican Party will look like in the future," said Mark Braden, the former chief counsel for the Republican National Committee. "Will it be a conspiratorial party of a tiny fringe of black helicopter people? A populist party? Will it be a more traditional business conservative party that it was in the past? I have no idea where things will end up."

The impeachment trial will focus narrowly on Trump's role in the mayhem that overtook the Capitol on Jan. 6. Ten House Republicans joined all Democrats to impeach Trump last month for "incitement of insurrection against the Republic he swore to protect."

Trump's legal team is expected to file a trial brief by 10 a.m. on Monday morning outlining the arguments they'll make in his defense.

In a brief last week, Trump's lawyers said it is unconstitutional to impeach someone once they've left office.

They argued that Trump did not directly call on the mob to storm the Capitol, and pointed to police reports about some of the rioters were planning the siege before Trump's address.

The attorneys, David Schoen and Bruce Castor, also made a First Amendment case, arguing that conviction would severely curb political speech and make all politicians liable for the actions of the worst actors in their party.


Video: Trump WH planned march that led to Capitol insurrection (MSNBC)

Trump WH planned march that led to Capitol insurrection
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Trump's allies view the proceedings as an explicitly political effort aimed at ensuring Trump can never run for office again.

Forty-five out of 50 Senate Republicans have already voted to advance a motion to dismiss the trial on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, making it extremely unlikely that 17 Republicans will join Democrats this week to convict.

"If the Senate had been able to vote on this in early January, there may have been some appetite to convict," said John Pudner, a former adviser to one of Sen. Mitt Romney's (R-Utah) presidential campaigns. "But now it all looks political, with Democrats wanting to be remembered for making this case against Trump and every Republican thinking about their next primary challenge."

Democrats plan to draw a direct line between Trump's speech and the rioters, many of whom attacked the Capitol in an effort to stop the Electoral College vote count because they believed Trump's claims that the election had been stolen.

Democrats will also make an emotional case that includes video of the deadly riots and personal stories about the dangers they encountered as they fled for safety.

The White House is signaling it has little interest in being involved in the spectacle.

President Biden this week will meet with the Defense secretary at the Pentagon, visit the National Institute of Health and hold a virtual tour of a vaccination center as he aims to keep his focus on the coronavirus, the economy and national security.

But Democrats say the impeachment trial is something that must be done to ensure that democracy is never again threatened by a mob seeking to overturn the outcome of an election.

"President Trump's conduct must be declared unacceptable in the clearest and most unequivocal terms," the House impeachment managers wrote in a legal brief. "This is not a partisan matter. His actions directly threatened the very foundation on which all other political debates and disagreements unfold. They also threatened the constitutional system that protects the fundamental freedoms we cherish."

This will be the second consecutive week that internal GOP politics will dominate on Capitol Hill, pushing Biden's first 100 days agenda to the backburner.

Republicans slugged it out last week over the future roles of two members with different worldviews, Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Trump's allies sought to have Cheney, the number three Republican in the House, ousted from her leadership post for voting to impeach Trump.

Democrats stripped Greene of her committee assignments over a series of controversial remarks embracing various conspiracies, and they were joined by nearly a dozen Republicans.

Greene then gave a defiant speech reiterating her loyalty to Trump. "The party is his," Taylor Greene said. "It doesn't belong to anyone else."

Meanwhile, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who was censured by his state party for criticizing Trump, said the GOP is at a crossroads. "We're gonna have to choose between conservatism and madness," Sasse said.

There is anxiety among Republicans heading into the midterm elections season over the extent of Trump's grip on the party.

Trump brought to the forefront several issues Republicans believe to be winners and he undeniably energizes large swaths of the party. Republicans gained seats in the House in the 2020 election.

At the same time, Trump's rhetoric and style are a huge turnoff to moderates, independents and suburban-dwellers, who propelled Biden to the White House and Democrats to majorities in the House and Senate.

"The way forward is to steal Trump's ideas while kicking him out of the party," said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. "It's simple to say but a tough thing to do."

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