Congressional Democrats can’t wait to get started on the agenda of the new president—but their attempt to clean up the mess the last one left behind is threatening to delay that work before it even begins.
When the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol—with unanimous Democratic and even some Republican support—it set into motion the constitutional inevitability of a trial in the Senate, a process triggered as soon as the article of impeachment arrives in the upper chamber.
On Friday, newly-minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced that the article would be sent on Monday. Hours later, he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced an agreement to begin the trial two weeks later, on Feb. 8, giving Trump’s team time to prepare and a two-week window for the Senate to process President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations, and possibly his proposed COVID-19 relief package.
I have spoken to @SpeakerPelosi. The articles of impeachment will be delivered to the Senate on Monday.
Make no mistake: There will be a full trial. There will be a fair trial.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) January 22, 2021
Barring a unanimous agreement to the contrary, once the trial begins, the Senate would be frozen until it concluded—a problem for Senate Democrats if work on Biden’s coronavirus proposal is not complete by then.
The moment sets up the an inflection point for the new Democratic majority. The accountability they’ve craved for Trump seems tantalizingly close, with more Republicans than ever inclined to sever him from the GOP. A conviction in the Senate would hand Trump the ignominious punishment of a lifetime ban on holding federal office.
But reaching for that judgment may come with a cost: taking up a portion of a precious window at the beginning of Biden’s term, which nearly every Democrat is anxious to use to quickly install Biden’s cabinet and provide relief from the coronavirus pandemic.
In the hours after Schumer’s initial announcement—and before the trial schedule was set— Senate Democrats appeared to be on different pages about the best way forward—and just how urgently a post-presidency impeachment trial is needed.
“Because the former president is a former president, there’s no imminent threat,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “And while the Constitution requires that we deal with this, there’s no reason to interfere with the standing-up of a Cabinet. So my preference would be that we do two things at once.”
Democrats had already warmed to McConnell’s proposal, floated on Thursday, to begin the trial in mid-February. On Friday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he was “intrigued” by the idea. “The President doesn’t even have a defense. Certainly, you're not going to do a trial with a defendant who doesn’t even have a lawyer,” he said. “So I would hope that we could time this so that we could get significant work done on cabinet confirmations, and committees could at least get legislation queued up. That seems reasonable to me.”
On Thursday, Trump retained Butch Bowers, a South Carolina lawyer, as his counsel in the impeachment trial, reported Punchbowl News.
Asked directly about McConnell’s proposal on Friday afternoon, before the schedule was released, Biden didn’t say he opposed it. “I haven’t heard the detail of it,” he said, “but the more time we have to get up and running to meet these crises, the better.”
Other Democrats are eager to get the trial over and done with—over the course of as few as three days—and turn the page. “I think it has to go forward expeditiously, all deliberate speed, indefinite delay serves no one, and the evidence is pretty open and shut—it just came out of the President's mouth,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
And Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) expressed some impatience with the idea that Trump needed to get more time to prepare for trial. “What he did to incite these domestic terrorists to storm the United States Capitol, I don't know why the President was not putting a team in place from the very beginning, from the day that the House took this action,” said Luján.
The impeachment discussion is taking place in an already-unsettled Senate. Democrats officially gained the majority on Wednesday, with the swearing-in of three new Democratic senators and the ascension of Vice President Kamala Harris, the chamber’s tie-breaking vote. But party leaders have yet to agree on the ground rules for the upcoming session—which include division of resources between the parties—as McConnell uses the procedure debate to force Democrats to take a stance on ending the filibuster, which Schumer has called “extraneous,” delaying the process.
The GOP, now in the minority, seemed content to frame Democrats’ calculus on impeachment as a stark choice before Schumer and McConnell agreed to delay the trial’s opening. “Absent some agreement,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), “we won't be doing any confirmations, we won't be doing any COVID-19 relief, we won't be doing anything else other than impeaching a person who's not even president.”
Such an agreement is possible, should Republicans choose to acquiesce. Still, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), a reliable ally of Trump during his presidency, said Democrats “have to choose national security over vindictiveness.”
But vindictiveness is exactly where the former president’s head is as he moves into his post-presidency. Sources close to Trump say that this month, he had already started talking to advisers and other MAGA diehards about creating a new political party, to build off of his diehard fan base among the conservative grassroots and Republican voters. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that one name he has been batting around is the “Patriot Party.”
The task of launching a brand-new, viable third party is a monumental, heavy lift, and several of Trump’s closest advisers are unsure of how seriously to take his recent musings and flirtation. However, Trump has made clear that pure spite could easily factor into the decision-making, depending on how a Senate trial would end.
Trump has told some people close to him that if Republican lawmakers moved to bar him from holding office ever again—a potential outcome of the impeachment trial—he could make their lives miserable by helping to establish a new right-wing party that could siphon off Republican voters in elections, according to two individuals with knowledge of his private remarks in recent days. Trump has also this month discussed the prospects of supporting primary challengers and campaigning against elected Republicans who he feels were insufficiently loyal to him during his failed crusade to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
“They better not do this to me,” Trump uttered during some of the final moments of his presidency, according to one of the sources who heard him say it. The source added that the now-former president was also complaining about how dumb and shortsighted Republicans would have to be to betray and get rid of their most popular and—to Trump—most successful political figure.
It’s a scenario that some prominent Republicans actively fear could split the party and benefit their progressive adversaries.
“Well, I think a third-party movement would destroy conservatism,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close Trump ally who is still advising the ex-president, told reporters on Thursday. “I think if there was an effort to break away and form a new party, that would be a dream scenario for liberal Democrats, because if we do that, that's the end of effectively having conservative voices. I think Trump is going to be a major voice in the Republican Party; the best thing for him and us is to field a good team in 2022 and mount a comeback.”
But for now, the president is intently monitoring the situation from his new home base in the Sunshine State, taking the temperature on who has his back, and on which players in the GOP—for which he remains the standard bearer—are trying to expel him.
By the time Trump had settled into his private Florida club Mar-a-Lago on the first half-day of the Biden presidency, the former Republican president was already working the phones, asking confidants and longtime advisers how they thought his new legal team should take shape, and which Republicans on Capitol Hill could be quietly working to forestall his political comeback, according to two people familiar with the phone calls.
By Wednesday evening, Trump had landed on at least one name—but it wasn’t one of his go-to bomb-throwers like Rudy Giuliani. It was Butch Bowers, a South Carolina-based lawyer who had advised other GOP figures such as Mark Sanford, including when the former governor dealt with his own impeachment drive at the hands of South Carolina’s House way back in the early Obama era. Bowers is also a veteran of George W. Bush’s Department of Justice. Graham helped arrange Trump and Bowers.
Bowers did not respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon, but some of his former conservative clients—even some who are disgusted by Trump—speak highly of him.
“He’s an established figure in South Carolina, who knows South Carolina election law well…[and] he’s a very capable human being,” former Rep. Sanford (R-SC), a Trump critic on the right, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “He’s represented me on-and-off for the past two decades, but with exception to 2009, nothing earth-shattering.”
Sanford added, “[This] is a far cry, no disrespect to the Giulianis of the world, from that ilk. [Bowers] is a first-class human being. I’m not a fan of Trump, of course, but as a straight-up honest broker in the negotiations of law and all that it entails, I don’t know of a better person than Butch.”