Here’s where we are: A president who survived impeachment for trying to stack the deck against his most-feared election opponent is now facing impeachment again for inciting his supporters to attack Capitol Hill to challenge that same opponent’s victory.
When they write about the epic power-corrupting tragedy of these past few years, it’ll all seem so circular and poetic. We’re now entering what might feel like the closing act of the play, with now-former President Donald Trump already out of office and cut off from social media.
This second impeachment trial is arguably more important, because it’s about Trump’s attempt to stop American democracy from functioning. But the first one set the precedent of Trump being held to account for trying to pull the levers of his authority to preserve his own power.
Here’s a rundown of what happened leading up to the first impeachment in late 2019 and the last Senate trial in early 2020.
Trump’s first impeachment was a complicated affair
A whistleblower complained. It took time to learn that Trump was trying to exert pressure on a foreign leader — the new president of Ukraine — to dig up dirt on now-President Joe Biden, the potential 2020 Democratic rival Trump was most worried about having to face. Here’s a timeline of what happened behind the scenes.
Denials clouded the situation. After trying to keep the whistleblower complaint from Congress, the White House argued Trump did nothing wrong.
Facts trickled out. The whistleblower complaint and a transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s new President showed the President very much exerted pressure and tried to get the foreign country to launch a baseless investigation of Biden and his son Hunter. Aid to Ukraine was slowed. Russia licked its chops. This all occurred long before Biden’s nascent presidential campaign had even gained traction.
There was a very real debate. Democrats struggled over whether to move forward with an effort that was never going to remove Trump from office after a trial in the Senate, where Republicans held a majority.
An impeachment investigation ensued. There were weeks of testimony, in private and then in public, by witnesses including a US ambassador, sitting diplomats and top White House national security officials who were concerned at Trump’s behavior. But Trump and most of his administration refused to take part and blocked testimony and cooperation by some key players.
House Democrats voted to impeach. Trump became only the third US president ever to be impeached, in a party-line vote on December 18, 2019.
Republicans circled the wagons. In the Senate, Trump’s allies either argued Trump was entitled to his foreign policy or that his behavior was not impeachable. Only Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee — the last one before Trump — voted to convict him.
Democrats warned he would take the acquittal as license to do it again.
Everything is simpler this time
There’s been no investigation into what Trump did. He did everything he is accused of on Twitter and out loud, repeatedly rejecting the 2020 presidential election result and encouraging supporters to come to Washington and “stop the steal.” They came and, at a rally near the White House on January 6 shortly before Congress began the process of formally recognizing the results, he told them to march to the US Capitol. They did and the mob managed to breach the building and interrupt the counting of electoral votes in a fit of insurrection that left five people dead.
There have been no hearings with witness testimony. The proof of Trump’s behavior is in his own words and the actions of his supporters.
This second trial will also take place at the scene of the crime, and senators will sit in judgment in the room that last month was ransacked by Trump’s supporters.
A much quicker process. Getting from Trump’s Ukraine misdeeds — embodied in a July 25, 2019 phone call between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — to impeachment proceedings in the House took months in 2019. Trump was impeached by the House in mid-December and acquitted on February 5, 2020.
This time, his supporters interrupted Congress counting electoral votes January 6, 2021. Trump was impeached one week later and his trial could be wrapped up in a little more than a week this time.
A bipartisan impeachment. Several Democrats opposed Trump’s first impeachment in the House. The opposite has happened this time, with five Republicans, including third-ranking GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, voting in favor of his second.
A very different trial. Chief Justice John Roberts declined to preside over this second trial since Trump is no longer a sitting president. Instead, the long-serving Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont will preside. But he’ll follow Roberts’ script.
Hurried for a different reason. The first trial was hurried along by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican. Now, McConnell has expressed disgust with Trump’s actions. It’s not clear if he’ll ultimately vote to convict, but it’s his successor as majority leader, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, who is hurrying the trial along so lawmakers can turn their focus to Biden’s legislative priorities, like a Covid relief package. Trump’s first acquittal came just weeks before the pandemic took hold and dramatically reshaped life in the US.
A similar result? It’ll take 17 Republicans voting with Democrats to convict Trump. The main argument among those voting to acquit could be “why bother with this?” now that Trump’s out of office.
The answer is that this process is the only way under the Constitution to block the man who rejected the results of this election from running in the next one.