How The Senate Impeachment Trial Works

Dec 31, 2019
Originally published on January 22, 2020 6:15 pm

President Trump's fate is now in the hands of the Senate. The House of Representatives has impeached the president, and it is up to senators to determine whether he will be removed from office.


Senators passed a resolution on the ground rules for the trial after a marathon 13 hours of debate that included multiple failed attempts by Democrats to get a commitment on witnesses and documents. Read the resolution introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

It has been more than a month since the House voted to impeach Trump, charging him with abusing his power and obstructing Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had been holding off on transmitting the articles to the Senate, essentially delaying the trial, because she wanted details on how the trial would work.

She ultimately relented without any further information from McConnell, and the House voted to send the articles to the Senate on Jan. 15.

The next day, Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in to preside over the trial. He then administered the oath to senators, who swore to render "impartial justice" as jurors.

Here is more about the various roles and how the trial will play out.

Setting The Ground Rules

Timing: Senate passed organizing resolution on Jan. 21

The details of a Senate impeachment trial are generally up for negotiation, but that negotiation essentially ended when McConnell announced he had the votes to move ahead with a resolution outlining the process without Democrats.

Republicans did pass the resolution, with some last-minute, hand-written changes, but not before Democrats offered multiple amendments, triggering hours of debate.


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had been pushing for a deal up front that would include testimony from witnesses, including Trump administration officials. The resolution that passed delays debate on witnesses and new evidence until after days of opening statements and questioning from senators.

The Trial

Timing: Opening arguments began on Jan. 22

During the trial, there are clear rules for each of the key players. U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts presides. Senators do not do the talking; they can only submit written questions. The rules for this trial give senators a 16-hour period of questioning after both parties give opening arguments.

Impeachment managers from the House represent the Democrats' argument. The president's defense team includes White House counsel, outside attorneys and a number of Republican members of the House.


Opening arguments began Wednesday at 1 p.m. Each side gets up to 24 hours over three days to make their case (the original resolution from McConnell only afforded two days to each side).

The Democratic managers go first, then the defense team makes its case. It will be the first time in the inquiry that the White House is fully participating. The White House declined to participate in the Democratic-led House proceedings, which Trump considered a "sham."


After opening arguments, senators will have 16 hours to ask questions in the chamber, followed by two hours of arguments each by the House impeachment managers and the president's lawyers.

Then comes the debate on whether to subpoena witnesses or introduce new documents.

This is where moderate Republicans could throw wrenches into the leadership's plans, if enough of them decide they want to hear additional testimony.

Once again, these procedural votes require only a majority. A 50-50 tie is considered a failure to pass because Vice President Pence cannot cast the deciding vote as he would (and has) in other cases. The chief justice is unlikely to want to cast a deciding vote as he presides over the trial, seeking to maintain impartiality.

The rules also note that any witness must be deposed before testifying.

The Final Vote

Timing: TBD

After the trial, the Senate votes on whether to convict or acquit the president on each article of impeachment. Convicting Trump and therefore removing him from office requires 67 votes. That would mean 20 Republicans would have to join Democrats in the effort — a highly unlikely prospect.

Acquitting Trump of the charges or dismissing the charges, however, takes only 51 votes.


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Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images (Mitch McConnell); Paul Morigi/Getty Images (Susan Collins); Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (Lisa Murkowski and John Roberts); Mark Wilson/Getty Images (Cory Gardner, Joe Manchin, Martha McSally and Chuck Schumer); Alex Wong/Getty Images (Doug Jones and Mitt Romney)

This story originally published on Dec. 31, 2019.

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