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How Trump's 'Trial' Will Differ From a Normal Trial

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: U.S. President Donald Trump walks toward journalists as he departs the White House for a campaign rally in Pennsylvania May 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. On his way to Montoursville, Pennsylvania, Trump said that Iran does not currently pose a direct threat to the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
By Andrew Leonatti on January 17, 2020

History is unfolding, as the U.S. Senate begins just its third impeachment trial of a president in our nation's history. President Trump's hold on the White House hangs in the balance.

You've already heard complaints about "due process," witness testimony, and Senate rules over the last few months. Lawmakers and pundits will try to spin their arguments to either make it sound like the president's rights are being violated or he is trampling over lawmakers.

But this is anything but a normal trial.

The Majority Makes the Rules

In this "courtroom," senators will act as the jury. However, they also get to set the rules for the proceedings. And any motion to set or change those rules only requires a majority vote. The proceedings will start with a vote to approve the rules for the proceedings, which will lay out the time limits for opening and closing arguments.

After those opening arguments, however, a senator, with the votes of 50 of their fellow lawmakers, can make and pass motions to:

  • End the trial and proceed to closing arguments and a vote on conviction or acquittal (remember, it requires 67 votes to convict, instead of a unanimous vote, like in a criminal trial)
  • Require witnesses to appear and new evidence to be introduced and the procedures for which their testimonies will be heard (juries cannot decide this in regular trials)
  • Vote on censuring the president instead of conviction or acquittal (a jury cannot decide to change a punishment like this)
  • Whether to debate motions in closed session without television cameras present

In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could even make a motion to stop other motions from coming to the floor, and if the majority supports him, that's that.

The one big limit on senators is a really good one: They aren't allowed to speak. After the House and Trump teams make their arguments, senators can only write down their questions. They also are not allowed to interrupt opening and closing arguments. However, a majority of senators could also vote to change this rule.

The only time senators will be allowed to speak (a privilege not afforded a regular juror) will be when debating the motions above and after closing arguments.

Roberts' Role

While U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the Senate for the duration of the trial, his role is not the same as the judge of a criminal or civil trial.

He will not be able to rule evidence and witnesses in or out of order. He will be able to rule on whether the Senate is following its rules for the proceedings, and he may vote to break any ties.

There are times where these proceedings will seem like a trial, but there will be no shouts of objections or requests for mistrials. Instead, most of America is about to get a crash course in arcane Senate procedural rules.

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