A growing number of Republican senators say they oppose holding an impeachment trial, a sign of the dimming chances that former U.S. president Donald Trump will be convicted on the charge that he incited a siege of the U.S. Capitol.
House Democrats, who will walk the impeachment charge of "incitement of insurrection" to the Senate on Monday evening, are hoping that strong Republican denunciations of Trump after the Jan. 6 riot will translate into a conviction and a separate vote to bar him from holding office again.
But Republican passions appear to have cooled since the insurrection. And now that Trump's presidency is over, Republican senators who will serve as jurors in the trial are rallying to his legal defence, as they did during his first impeachment trial last year.
"I think the trial is stupid, I think it's counterproductive," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said.
He said that "the first chance I get to vote to end this trial, I'll do it" because he believes it would be bad for the country and further inflame partisan divisions.
Arguments in the Senate trial will begin the week of Feb. 8. Leaders in both parties agreed to the short delay to give Trump's team and House prosecutors time to prepare and the Senate the chance to confirm some of President Joe Biden's cabinet nominees.
Democrats say the extra days will allow for more evidence to come out about the rioting by Trump supporters who interrupted the congressional electoral count of Biden's election victory, while Republicans hope to craft a unified defence for Trump.
17 Republican senators needed to convict
An early vote to dismiss the trial probably would not succeed, given that Democrats now control the Senate. Still, the Republican opposition indicates that many of its senators would eventually vote to acquit Trump. Democrats would need the support of 17 Republicans — a high bar — to convict him.
When the House of Representatives impeached Trump on Jan. 13, exactly one week after the siege, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said he didn't believe the Senate had the constitutional authority to convict Trump after he had left office. On Sunday, Cotton said that "the more I talk to other Republican senators, the more they're beginning to line up" behind that argument.
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"I think a lot of Americans are going to think it's strange that the Senate is spending its time trying to convict and remove from office a man who left office a week ago," Cotton said.
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 U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812 — perpetrated by rioters egged on by a president who told them to "fight like hell" against election results that were being counted at the time — is necessary so the country can move forward and ensure such a siege never happens again.
A few Republican senators have agreed with Democrats, though not close to the number that will be needed to convict Trump.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said he believes there is a "preponderance of opinion" that an impeachment trial is appropriate after someone leaves office.
"I believe that what is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offence," Romney said. "If not, what is?"
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But Romney, the lone Republican to vote to convict Trump when the Senate acquitted the then-president in last year's trial, appears to be an outlier. Republican senators Mike Rounds, John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham were among those who recently voiced opposition to the impeachment trial
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who said last week that Trump "provoked" his supporters before the riot, has not said how he will vote or argued any legal strategies. The Kentucky senator has told his Republican colleagues that it will be a vote of conscience.
'An extraordinarily heinous presidential crime'
One of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's nine impeachment managers said Trump's encouragement of his loyalists before the riot was "an extraordinarily heinous presidential crime."
"I think you will see that we will put together a case that is so compelling because the facts and the law reveal what this president did," said Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. "I mean, think back. It was just two-and-a-half weeks ago that the president assembled a mob on the Ellipse of the White House. He incited them with his words. And then he lit the match."
Trump's supporters invaded the Capitol and interrupted the electoral count as he falsely claimed there was massive fraud in the Nov. 3 election and that it was stolen by Biden. Trump's claims were roundly rejected in the courts, including by judges appointed by Trump, and by state election officials.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday that he hopes that evolving clarity on the details of what happened Jan. 6 "will make it clearer to my colleagues and the American people that we need some accountability."
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Coons questioned how his colleagues who were in the Capitol that day could see the insurrection as anything other than a "stunning violation" of the centuries-old tradition of peaceful transfers of power.
"It is a critical moment in American history, and we have to look at it and look at it hard," Coons said.