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Bitter Senate impeachment trial of Trump could bog down Biden's first days

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks on the U.S. response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst reuters_tickers
This content was published on January 14, 2021 - 15:31

By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The second impeachment of President Donald Trump by the U.S. House of Representatives, for inciting last week's deadly rampage at the Capitol, could set off a bitter Senate fight that entangles the early days of President-elect Joe Biden's term.

Trump, whose turbulent four-year term in office is due to end next Wednesday, became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice when the Democratic-led House voted 232-197 on Wednesday to charge him with inciting an insurrection. Ten of Trump's fellow Republicans joined Democrats in approving the single article of impeachment.

The swift impeachment appears unlikely to lead to Trump's ouster before Biden takes office on Jan. 20. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected Democratic calls for a quick trial in the Republican-led chamber, saying there was no way to finish it before Trump leaves office.

Biden, a Democrat, has urged Senate leaders to avoid a bitter trial during his first days in the White House so that they can focus on the economy, getting the coronavirus vaccine distribution program on track and confirming crucial Cabinet nominees.

    "I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their Constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation," Biden said in a statement on Wednesday night.

Biden's inauguration has been scaled back due to security concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic. The West Front of the Capitol building, where the swearing-in occurs, is now fortified by fencing, barriers and thousands of National Guard troops.

Delta Air Lines said on Thursday it has put 880 people on its no-fly list for not complying with mask requirements and banned others for unruly behavior or harassing other passengers related to the U.S. election results.

The House passed the article of impeachment - equivalent to an indictment in a criminal trial - accusing the Republican president of "incitement of insurrection," focused on an incendiary speech he delivered to thousands of supporters shortly before the riot. In the speech, Trump repeated false claims that the election was fraudulent and exhorted supporters to march on the Capitol.

The mob disrupted Congress's certification of Biden's victory over Trump in the Nov. 3 election, sent lawmakers into hiding and left five people dead, including a police officer.

SENATE TRIAL

Under the Constitution, impeachment in the House triggers a trial in the Senate. A two-thirds majority would be needed to convict and remove Trump, meaning at least 17 Republicans in the 100-member chamber would have to join the Democrats.

If Trump is already out of the White House, historical precedent suggests the Senate could disqualify him from holding office in the future with only a simple majority vote.

McConnell has said no trial could begin until the Senate was scheduled to be back in regular session on Tuesday.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, set to become majority leader this month, said that no matter the timing, "there will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate; there will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors; and if the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again."

House leaders did not say when they would formally send the charge to the Senate for consideration.

Asked if it would be a good idea to hold a trial on Biden's first day in office, U.S. Representative Madeleine Dean, one of the House members selected to prosecute the trial, said: "I don't want to preview it, but certainly not."

The emotional impeachment debate took place in the same House chamber where lawmakers were forced to duck under chairs and don gas masks as rioters clashed with police outside the doors on Jan. 6.

"The president of the United States incited this insurrection, this armed rebellion against our common country," Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor before the vote. "He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love."

No U.S. president has ever been removed from office via impeachment. Three - Trump in 2019, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 - were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 rather than face impeachment.

TRUMP TAKES NO RESPONSIBILITY   

In a video statement released after Wednesday's vote, Trump did not mention impeachment and took no responsibility for his remarks to supporters last week, but condemned violence.

    "Mob violence goes against everything I believe in and everything our movement stands for. No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence," Trump said.

Some Republicans argued the impeachment drive was a rush to judgment that bypassed the customary deliberative process, and called on Democrats to abandon the effort for the sake of national unity and healing.

The Republicans who voted to impeach included Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican.

    The House also impeached Trump in December 2019 on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from his request that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son Hunter ahead of the election. Democrats accused him of soliciting foreign interference to smear a domestic political rival. The Senate in February 2020 voted to keep Trump in office.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert; Writing by John Whitesides and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Mary Milliken, Peter Cooney and William Mallard)

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