Democrats and Republicans eager to tidily conclude former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial within a week may have a fresh obstacle in front of them: the biblical commandment to keep the Jewish Sabbath.
One of the lead defense lawyers for Trump has informed Senate leaders that he is an observant Jew who strictly adheres to the commandment against working on the Sabbath and thus would be unable to participate in any proceeding that stretched past sundown on Friday or met Saturday.
In a letter obtained by The New York Times, the lawyer, David Schoen, asked that the trial be suspended if it was not finished by the beginning of the Sabbath at 5:24 p.m. Friday and that it not reconvene until Sunday.
“I apologize for the inconvenience my request that impeachment proceedings not be conducted during the Jewish Sabbath undoubtedly will cause other people involved in the proceedings,” Schoen said in the letter. “The practices and prohibitions are mandatory for me, however; so, respectfully, I have no choice but to make this request.”
The letter was sent to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader; and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who as president pro tempore is presiding over the trial.
In a statement Saturday evening, a spokesperson for Schumer said an allowance would be made for Schoen but did not elaborate on how.
“We respect their request and of course will accommodate it,” said the spokesperson, Justin Goodman. “Conversations with the relevant parties about the structure of the trial continue.”
While the leaders have yet to agree on a precise timetable for the trial, which is set to begin Tuesday, people familiar with the process had said they were planning for a proceeding that was very likely to stretch into the night Friday and continue Saturday.
But members of both parties are hoping for a speedy trial. Democrats, knowing there are almost certainly not enough votes to convict Trump, want the process over quickly to avoid any further distractions from President Joe Biden’s agenda, particularly his push to quickly pass a stimulus bill and confirm the remainder of his Cabinet. Republicans, who have been badly divided by the push to impeach Trump and do not relish a detailed discussion of his role in provoking the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, have their own reasons for wanting the trial over with quickly.
It is unclear how Senate leaders will honor Schoen’s request. If they moved to fast-track the trial to ensure it was concluded by sundown Friday, it would make for by far the speediest presidential impeachment trial in history. If they suspended it as Schoen has asked, the proceeding could bleed into a federal holiday Monday and what was supposed to be a holiday week for the Senate, when its members were supposed to get a break to go home to their states. If leaders opted instead to delay it further, that would punt planned action on confirming Biden’s nominees and advancing his pandemic aid bill.
Schoen said in a telephone interview Friday that he had not heard from the leaders about a range of issues related to the trial, including its schedule and how much time each side would receive to present arguments. Schumer, who has been negotiating with McConnell over those matters, is expected to announce the details shortly before the trial begins.
Schoen is part of a second group of lawyers who has stepped in to represent Trump in his second impeachment trial. The first team quit after its lawyers refused to commit to making the former president’s preferred trial strategy — that they defend him by repeating his baseless claims that the election was stolen from him.
Now Schoen joins a list of prominent Jews who have run into issues in Washington over observance of the Sabbath. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the former president’s daughter and son-in-law who are Orthodox Jews, said they had received special permission from a rabbi to attend Trump’s inaugural festivities in 2017. They said they had obtained a similar exemption at least once later in Trump’s presidency to travel on the Sabbath.
During the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999, a Connecticut senator at the time, Joseph Lieberman, who is an observant Jew, walked 4 miles from his Georgetown apartment to Capitol Hill to sit as a juror. Because Jewish law teaches that one may break the Sabbath if the matter involves “concern for human life,” Lieberman, in consultation with his rabbis, devised his own rule whereby he refrained from campaigning or performing any strictly political activity on the Sabbath but would attend Senate sessions and vote, if necessary.
He did not, however, ride in a car or elevator, in line with a restriction that comes from a prohibition against creating sparks and fires.
Schoen’s request will now have to be factored in with decades-old impeachment trial rules and the schedule, work habits and politics of the Senate. The rules say the Senate should meet Monday through Saturday for impeachment trials and break only on Sunday, the schedule that was followed during both Trump’s last trial and Clinton’s.
Schoen noted in his letter that the Sabbath would end at 6:25 p.m. Saturday and proposed that the trial resume Sunday.
“While I would not, of course, want to in any way interfere with anyone’s religious observance on Sunday, perhaps since the proceedings do not commence each day until the afternoon, Sunday proceedings will not affect anyone else’s religious practice (e.g. church attendance),” he wrote.