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Trump impeachment sets up politically perilous Senate trial, possibly threatening Joe Biden's agenda

WASHINGTON – The historic impeachment of President Donald Trump for his role in last week's violence at the U.S. Capitol added a gargantuan dose of uncertainty Wednesday to President-elect Joe Biden's first days in office as leaders of both political parties began to game out how – and when – to hold a Senate trial.

With days remaining until Biden is inaugurated and Democrats take control of the Senate, attention shifted quickly to questions over the timing of an impeachment trial – a rare spectacle that promises to consume American politics for weeks and challenge assumptions about how Washington will transition out of the Trump era.

House Democrats galloped toward the second impeachment of Trump after the president whipped up a crowd outside the White House with false claims of a stolen election, inciting a mob that went on to storm the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, interrupting the count of Electoral College votes and creating a day of chaos that left five dead.

But there were signs neither side was in as much of a rush to begin the trial, a messier process that could bar Trump from seeking the presidency again. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declined to say when she would send the impeachment article to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the chamber would not return to Washington until Jan. 19. Biden is set to be sworn in Jan. 20. 

"It's a risky political move," said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor who wrote a book on impeachment in 2018.   

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Senate Democrats must decide if they want to eat up time in Biden's first weeks with a trial that could slow his agenda to address the deadly coronavirus pandemic, stall Cabinet nominations he'll want to be confirmed quickly and keep the focus on a divisive ex-president even as he tries to cast himself as a uniting force. Republicans, meanwhile, must decide if this is the moment to make a clean break with Trump.

Biden, who has not taken a position on impeachment, has sought to walk a middle line, suggesting the Senate could "bifurcate" its schedule to spend part of the day on his nominees and part of the day on the potentially wrenching impeachment trial.

Gerhardt and others predicted a trial ultimately would not begin until after Democrats take control of the chamber, possibly long after. Rep. Jim Clyburn, S-S.C., the third-ranking House Democrat, suggested last week that leaders could wait until 100 days after Biden moved into the White House to send the impeachment article to the Senate. 

Pelosi waited nearly a month after the House impeached Trump in late 2019 to send the articles to the other chamber. The Senate, which is required to begin the trial as soon as the articles of impeachment are received, took about three weeks to consider the charges, which stemmed from allegations Trump improperly sought Ukraine's help to boost his reelection chances. The Senate acquitted Trump in early February. 

On Wednesday, Pelosi offered no indication about how long she would wait this time. 

"We're seeing members of Congress really struggle," Gerhardt said of the timing questions. "They're struggling because they're politically accountable – they know they're going to be politically responsible for their decision."

Trump will leave office Jan. 20, but the push to impeach him was in part about relinquishing his longstanding grip on the Republican Party. White House aides long hinted that Trump could continue his political rallies, influence which candidates and policies gained traction with the GOP base, and possibly run for president again in 2024.

The president himself offered little reaction to the proceedings in the days leading up to the House vote. Deprived of Twitter and other social media, Trump urged his supporters in a statement Wednesday to take part in "NO violence" and "NO lawbreaking."  

Adding to the uncertainty of a Senate trial: White House Counsel Pat Cipollone would not be able to represent Trump once he leaves office as he did during the first impeachment trial. The president would need to build an entirely new legal team if the Senate proceeds with its trial. 

Kevin Madden, former adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said although the Republican Party is fracturing in real time, the divisions existed long before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol: those who are devoted to defending the rule of law and democratic institutions and those who are devoted to the president. 

"If he’s impeached and then removed, that means he’s an afterthought as far as 2024 and then the party begins rebuilding Jan. 21," he said.

Trump’s hold on the party has changed over the last two weeks, according to Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and vocal critic of the president, creating a window for Republicans to make a clean break.

Among the blows Republicans suffered last week was the loss of two Senate races in Georgia, handing Biden Democratic control of both chambers. Some faulted the president for pushing baseless claims of election fraud, a theme that may have discouraged some Georgia Republicans from going to the polls in the Senate race.

“For McConnell, his best course of action is to diminish Donald Trump’s hold on the party going forward,” said Longwell, who supports Trump’s impeachment. “I think his signal yesterday – as Liz Cheney did – is to encourage as many Republicans to vote for impeachment as possible.”