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Impeachment trial day 1 preview

A key subplot of Trump’s impeachment trial: the clock

The exterior of the US Capitol building is seen at sunrise on Monday.
The exterior of the US Capitol building is seen at sunrise on Monday.Sarah Silbiger/Getty

The second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, set to begin in earnest on Tuesday, will happen in two speeds. For Democrats, the question is how quickly they get the trial over with. For Republicans, it’s a question of how long they can drag this thing out.

Both parties are acting out of logic.

For Democrats, the premise is simple: there appears to be no path to get to 17 Republicans joining them to convict the former president of inciting a riot a month ago. The latest tracker of all 50 Republican senators shows that only five have even suggested they are open to the idea.

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If that is the case, then Democrats could make a show of rehashing why they think Trump is a horrible human being and uniquely responsible for the deadly, seditious attack on the Capitol. House impeachment managers have said in recent days that this will be a multimedia-heavy case, relying on video and images from Jan. 6, which is meant for a much wider audience than the US Senate.

However, the longer the trial goes on, the longer it delays the Democratic agenda on pretty much everything else. Remember, Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in both the House and Senate, and face an uphill climb in holding onto power going into the midterms.

This brings us to the Republicans, who have the opposite viewpoint. Every hour that goes by when the Senate is not focused on passing Democratic bills is a win for them. In this “run out the clock” mindset, Republicans already have two wins on the board. First, even though the US House impeached Trump last month, Republicans were able to push the trial into the first month of Biden’s term, when, historically, a president is at the peak of his power, fresh off of an election mandate from voters. Second, Republicans were able to get Democrats to agree to spend the entire first day of the trial focused on whether the trial should even proceed, given that it involves a president no longer in office.

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Indeed, on Tuesday there are reportedly four hours scheduled to debate this question and then there is a vote on whether to proceed. In terms of how the Senate works, that wipes out an entire day. And if you’re wondering whether the Senate just voted on this very question — you are right. Democrats won a vote on a measure questioning the constitutionality of the trial late last month, and are expected to win the vote on Tuesday. But it was one day when no one was voting on raising the minimum wage, wasn’t it?

The only important vote that could flip the entire timing dynamic is over witnesses. Some Democrats might want witnesses called, but doing so would significantly prolong the impeachment trial.

Trump’s first impeachment trial took three weeks. There were different dynamics at play back then. The facts involving what did and didn’t happen in Ukraine were complicated and weren’t televised for all Americans to see like the Capitol insurrection was. It was an election year and Democrats wanted to drag out the proceedings. Also, Republicans controlled the Senate.

This time around there is talk about completing the trial in as little as a week. The White House has signaled that President Biden will be focused on passing a COVID relief bill and not on the impeachment trial at all.

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And this is the real political concern for Democrats: The longer this trial goes on, the more Republicans will say Democrats are more focused on their hatred of a former president than they are on delivering for the American people. If Democrats simply want to put Republicans on the record declaring where they stand on Trump’s role in the events of Jan. 6, Democrats might be smart to just get to the voting as soon as possible.

After all, history already will judge Trump no matter how this trial plays out. But it is an open question as to how history will judge Biden’s first 100 days in office.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.