How Does The Senate Impeachment Trial Work?

Senators aren’t allowed to have cell phones, coffee, or food inside the chamber during the trial.

Getty Images
Getty Images

On January 21, the Senate began the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

He has been impeached by the House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in the Trump-Ukraine scandal. (See background info here.)

Two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, have to vote in favor of conviction for Trump to be removed from office.

Here’s how the trial will play out:

  • On Wednesday, January 22, the House impeachment managers and President Trump’s defense team started making their opening arguments. They are gaveling in at 1 pm EST every day. Watch live here.
  • Under the rules that were passed early Wednesday morning, each side will have 24 hours spread out over three days to make their case for and against convicting the president. The reported assumption is that the trial will run from 1-9 pm EST most days, meaning the arguments could take six days to complete. (The Senate may gavel in for Saturday sessions during the trial, only taking Sundays off.)
  • After the opening arguments are complete — either late this week or early next — senators then have 16 hours to ask questions. They have to submit these questions in writing.
  • After the senators’ questioning period, they will likely consider another motion to allow witnesses to testify or to allow more evidence to be introduced.
  • The trial ends in a vote where the Senate decides whether they want to convict or acquit the president. 
  • Keep in mind: McConnell has already said he wants this to be a speedy trial. He reportedly wants this finished in two weeks, or at least by February 4, when President Trump is due to give his annual State of the Union address. That would be much faster than the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, which took place over five weeks in 1999.

In addition to the rules of debate for the trial, there are “decorum rules” that senators are supposed to abide by, like:

  • They’re expected to remain silent during the proceedings.
  • No phones or electronic devices are allowed in the Senate chamber. They have to put said devices in cubbyholes before they enter the chamber.
  • They can only read materials that are relevant to the trial during the proceedings (that means no crosswords or Sudoku).
  • Food isn’t allowed in the Senate chamber, except for candy (there is a “candy desk” in the chamber which is stocked and available to senators. See a picture below.)
  • There’s an old, old rule that says only water or milk is allowed in the chamber — they can’t even have coffee! Which means they’ll have to stay awake using the sugar high they get from that candy...though there are occasional breaks in the day where they can get coffee or eat food as well (they had time for a dinner break on the first day).

Sen. Richard Cramer (R-NC) already told reporters he’s trying to regulate his daily coffee intake so he doesn’t have to make frequent bathroom breaks during the trial.

Many senators are tweeting inside looks at how they’re getting through the trial:

And here’s the candy desk, which is assigned to Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA), because his desk is in the back of the chamber next to the “most heavily used entrance”:

United States Senate

Some of the rules seem silly, but the Senate takes its arcane parliamentary procedure seriously. Every day, the Senate sergeant-at-arms gives this command at the beginning of each trial session: “All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment.”

Of course, that rule is flexible in practice — though senators occasionally whisper to each other, the Senate has never arrested anyone for violating this rule.

Who are the impeachment managers?

Impeachment managers essentially serve as prosecutors of the impeachment case, arguing in favor of the Senate convicting the president based on the charges from the House. They are:

  • Lead manager: Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee
  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Rep. Val Demings of Florida
  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California
  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York
  • Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado
  • Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi selected the managers based on their judiciary and courtroom experience. The group also represents the diverse demographics of the Democratic Party.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren has had a unique role in three presidential impeachments in U.S. history — she was a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon process, a sitting representative on that same committee during the Clinton impeachment, and on January 21, she became the first woman to speak on the Senate floor as an impeachment manager. As journalist Emily Cochrane noted: “All the impeachment managers in Clinton/Johnson trials were men.”

Reps. Val Deming and Hakeem Jeffries are the first-ever members of the Congressional Black Caucus to serve as impeachment managers; Demings became the first Black woman to speak on the Senate floor during an impeachment trial on January 21 as well. Rep. Sylvia Garcia is the first Latina to serve in this role as well.

Who is on Trump’s defense team?

  • Alan Dershowitz, who has defended O.J. Simpson, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein
  • Ken Starr, the lawyer who led the Clinton impeachment
  • Pat Cipollone, current White House counsel
  • Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal attorneys
  • Robert Ray, who also worked on the Clinton impeachment
  • Pam Bondi, former attorney general of Florida and a friend to President Trump
  • Jane Raskin, an attorney who worked on Trump’s legal team to defend him from the Mueller investigation
  • Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel
  • Mike Purpura, deputy White House counsel