WASHINGTON (CN) — The pageantry of the impeachment process is a rare event but one the nation is reacquainting itself with as the Senate prepares to weigh whether President Donald J. Trump should be removed from office.
“The House’s time is over; the Senate’s time is at hand,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said from the Senate floor this morning. “It’s time for this proud body to honor our founding purpose.”
House impeachment managers made their way through the Capitol an hour later to present the Senate with the two articles against Trump, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of justice.
McConnell has slammed the process since it began in the House last year, regularly dismissing Trump’s impeachment as one-sided political gamesmanship led by grudge-holding Democrats.
Even as the entire Capitol Building was abuzz Thursday with ceremonial procedures and preparation for the swearing-in of all 100 U.S. senators, the Kentucky senator took to the floor to lament the circumstances. It was the distribution of pens used to sign the impeachment articles by Speaker Pelosi just a day earlier that appeared to irk the majority leader. He suggested Democrats were cheapening the sacred process.
“Nothing says seriousness and sobriety like handing out souvenirs as though this were a happy bill signing instead of the gravest process in our Constitution,” McConnell said.
But McConnell’s critiques on the grandeur reserved for the rare act of impeachment stand alongside his own controversial comments on the process.
Just two days ago, the watchdog group Public Citizen filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee seeking review of the constitutionality of McConnell’s statements to reporters on Dec. 17 when he plainly said he would not be an impartial juror once trial proceedings begin.
His statement is not just a politically charged football for his critics but one that is at odds with the ceremonial oath he and 99 other senators take Thursday afternoon: “I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”
“Today it will be largely ceremonial but soon, it will be constitutional,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday. “Senators must do impartial justice. The weight of that oath will fall on our shoulders and our ability to honor it will be preserved in history.”
The entirety of the U.S. Senate took the oath after the body’s president pro tempore Chuck Grassley swore in the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts, who donned the traditional black robes as he stood at the dais on the Senate floor.
As is the tradition for impeachment, Roberts walked across the street from the nation’s highest court to the Senate where he was ushered inside with Grassley as his escort.
After the swearing-in ceremonies, the next step in the historic process is a summons to President Trump who is given an opportunity to respond to the charges. The White House did not immediately return request for comment Thursday but it is widely expected Trump will submit his response through White House attorney Pat Cipollone and his private attorney Jay Sekulow.
The president took to his preferred perch on Twitter to admonish the entirety of the impeachment process – in all caps.
“I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” Trump wrote a couple hours after the swearing-in.
Not long before, the president aired his impeachment frustrations during a ceremony in the Oval Office commemorating National Religious Freedom Day.
In front of a group of students from various faiths, Trump called the whistleblower a “fake.”
“Everything was false,” he said. “You now have the Ukrainian president and the foreign minister of Ukraine saying there was nothing done wrong. They say there was no pressure whatsoever and they impeach. It’s totally partisan. … It’s a hoax. It’s a sham.”
With the politesse of the procedure over, it’s back to battling over core impeachment matters like which, if any, witnesses will be called at trial and what, if any, new evidence will be permitted.
Senator Ron Johnson told reporters Thursday he had “no idea” if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would entertain lawmakers’ request for additional witnesses when the trial kicks off next week.
A Wisconsin Republican, Johnson emphasized that senators should get through the first phase of the process before focusing on the second. The lawmaker’s comments echoed those McConnell gave on the Senate floor in late December when he said senators should focus first on drafting parameters of the trial.
“It’s hard to predict, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Johnson said. “Eventually I want the full truth to come out across the board, but that’s a long time coming, unfortunately.”
Fellow Republican Senator Kevin Cramer meanwhile lamented that so much time and energy is being wasted, as he put it, on impeachment, but said the decision of convicting Trump should “be informed by the presentation, by the two sides.”
“I think it’s a pretty reasonable approach, clearly, we don’t want this to be what the House was,” the North Dakota senator said. “We want to demonstrate the seriousness that it deserves. We want it to be fair and look fair.”
Following the swearing-in, California Senator Kamala Harris emphasized that the matter at hand arguably represents the most serious charges leveled against a president.
Where there has been an abandonment to uphold the U.S. Constitution by the president, she said, the responsibility falls to the Senate.
“Not only is this an impeachment trial, but the very integrity of the United States Senate is on trial,” said Harris, who had lobbied last year for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Among his first duties as presiding officer in the trial, Chief Justice Roberts approved a series of procedural steps known as unanimous consent requests that establish deadlines for the President and Senate. Impeachment managers have until Friday by 5 p.m. to file their trial briefs. Trump has until Saturday by 6 p.m. to respond to the summons and then has until Monday to file his own trial briefs. If the House wishes to file a rebuttal brief they must do so no later than Tuesday.
Looking ahead to next week, Delaware Senator Chris Coons said there were two questions Republican lawmakers had to wrestle with over the weekend: if the trial before the Senate would be a fair one, and if the president would present a defense.
“If he hopes to claim exoneration, he has to have put a defense in front of this Senate,” Coons said. “So far, the evidence developed and presented in front of the House Intelligence Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, [which] has led them to take up and vote on articles of impeachment, seems very compelling, largely because the president has declined to present a defense.”