A group of Senate Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) met Friday morning with the Senate parliamentarian in a ransacked office to discuss a timeline for impeachment proceedings, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the situation.
Should House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bring articles of impeachment against Trump next week, which she has pledged to do if he doesn't resign, the parliamentarian's conclusion was that the earliest the Senate could begin a trial—absent unanimous consent—is either Jan. 19 or Jan. 20, the day of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. A memo on the subject laying out some ambiguities is expected in the coming hours, one of these sources said. Among them: whether the Senate can receive articles of impeachment from the House during a pro forma session.
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After the House delivers articles of impeachment to the Senate, it is obligated to begin a trial the following business day. The Senate is out of session until Jan. 19. The timeline shifts the spotlight to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), the incoming majority leader, who would then have to decide whether to devote the first days and weeks of Biden's presidency to a trial rather than to confirming cabinet nominees and pursuing a legislative agenda.
Because the Senate is obligated to hold a trial and call witnesses before voting whether to convict, Trump cannot be convicted and removed from office before Biden's swearing in on Jan. 20. If the Senate impeaches a president after he leaves office, the penalty would be not removal but a ban on holding federal office again. For Republicans, the timeline raises questions about the value they place on imposing that penalty.
Republicans and Democrats alike have grappled with how to respond to the president's incitement of a mob on Wednesday that stormed the Capitol and led to four fatalities. Democrats are pressing the Trump cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, though Vice President Mike Pence opposes the move, according to those familiar with his thinking. That course of action would present its own complications: Trump can contest his cabinet, which would move the matter to Congress.
Though Trump announced in a video message on Thursday acknowledging Biden as the next president and pledging a peaceful transition of power, lawmakers in both parties fear his ability to spark another violent event in his waning days. The president also indicated he would not attend Biden's inauguration later this month.
For the GOP, the silver lining of the mess, some argue, is that a Senate conviction would likely bar Trump from holding federal office again, though there is some debate about the constitutional text. As he dangles a 2024 run, a conviction would cut him off at the knees and potentially resolve a headache for the GOP that is otherwise likely to linger.
Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University, pointed the Washington Free Beacon to his 2019 analysis of the constitutional text: "Besides removal, the only other available punishment that the Senate can impose is to bar those convicted on impeachment charges from future federal office," Whittington wrote, noting that there is some debate about whether elected offices such as the presidency are offices "of honor, trust, or profit under the United States."
"If Trump was inclined to run again, there would undoubtedly be litigation over the question of whether he was eligible to be listed on the ballot in those circumstances," Whittington said.
A trio of Democratic lawmakers has announced its intention to introduce articles of impeachment as early as Monday, but it would fall to Pelosi to decide whether and how to proceed.