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What Sen. Tina Smith expects in the coming impeachment trial of President Trump

Trial proceedings should kick off in earnest next week.

Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts swearing in senators during the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial on Thursday.
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts swearing in senators during the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial on Thursday.
REUTERS/U.S. Senate TV

Tina Smith has never served on a jury.

But now Minnesota’s junior senator will finally get the chance: In the coming weeks, Smith will serve as one of one hundred jurors overseeing allegations of abuse of power against the president of the United States.

The trial is set to start on Tuesday and Smith is preparing for the long weeks ahead. One thing that is critical for Minnesotans to understand, Smith said, is that there is a significant difference between her own opinion of the president and her responsibility during the trial.

“I don’t think Donald Trump should be president, but that’s a very different question from whether I think that he should be removed from office because he’s committed impeachable offenses,” Smith said. ”And that’s the question that’s before the Senate.”

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Can I get a witness

The House passed two articles of impeachment in December. The first article accuses the president of abuse of power, for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The second accuses the president of obstruction of congress, for blocking testimony from former White House officials.

The trial began on Thursday, when Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in to preside.

Prior to the start, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)  named the impeachment managers, effectively prosecutors, that will make the case for impeachment: Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), Jason Crow (D-Co), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX).

Sen. Tina Smith
Sen. Tina Smith
But there is a lack of clarity as to how the trial itself will be structured. There are minimal instructions in the Constitution for a Senate impeachment trial. There are some guidelines, Senate standing rules, last revised in 1986. But beyond those guidelines, which primarily set the basic structure the trial around arguments from the president’s counsel and House impeachment managers, the other rules, like if new witnesses are allowed, are decided before each trial.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he aims to have similar rules to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. Those rules allowed for questions from senators and a debate about whether or not to call additional witnesses. Any senator could make a motion to dismiss the articles or call witnesses.

McConnell has still not made clear what the rules will look like. The Senate plans to vote on them next week. “It’s amazing that at this moment we still haven’t seen it,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday, referring to McConnell’s resolution.

One of the key points of contention for President Trump’s impeachment trial: Democrats want a guarantee that Senate Republicans will allow for additional witnesses.

For example, after the impeachment investigation concluded in the House, former National Security Advisor John Bolton said he would testify if compelled to. Bolton reportedly described the White House’s intention to withhold money from Ukraine as a “drug deal.”

McConnell previously said he had the votes to conduct the trial without witnesses, angering Democrats like Pelosi who’ve said new witnesses may be able to bring about credible information not heard during the House investigation and that Republicans are “are afraid of more facts coming to light.” 

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The Republican majority leader made his reasoning clear on the Senate floor: If Democrats have already made a convincing case, there’s no need for new evidence. And if it’s a weak case, there should not be impeachment in the first place.

Pelosi withheld the articles of impeachment from the Senate until this week, saying she would not formally transmit the articles to the Senate until she had more information on how the trial would be conducted. In the weeks since Pelosi announced her intention to withhold the articles, a growing chorus of Republicans have publicly said they would support a full-length trial and hinted at supporting additional witnesses. And all that is required by Senate rules to call witnesses is a simple majority: 51 Senators.

“My view is we should hear the case, ask our questions and then have a vote on whether we need to hear additional witnesses or call for additional documents,” retiring Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, recently told Politico. 

Smith favors additional witness testimony during the trial: “I think trials have witnesses and we shouldn’t be afraid of the facts that these witnesses might bring forward,” she said.

Talking to reporters on Tuesday, McConnell said that should more witnesses be allowed, he believes both Republicans and Democrats should be able to call them.

“I can’t imagine only the witnesses our Democratic colleagues want to call would be called,” he said.

Reaching conclusions

Smith said there is one difference between the 1999 trial and the upcoming trial that she finds particularly interesting: Now, Senators are constantly on their phones. And during the trial, which is likely to last several hours a day over a number of days, they will be required to put them away.

“All Americans, including United States Senators are very attached to their technology: their phones and their iPads. What’s the latest text? What’s the email? And yet during this impeachment process on the Senate floor, none of us will have our technology with us,” she said.

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“In my mind that’s a very good thing. We’ll be less likely to be distracted, more focused and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a little bit less tweeting and a little bit more listening.”

As to how her Republican colleagues will vote once trial has concluded, Smith said that she finds it impossible to know. Twenty Republicans would have to vote for impeachment in order to have a two-thirds majority, the required amount of votes to convict a president who has been impeached.

“I can’t look into the hearts and minds of my Republican colleagues and know that there are 20 of them that I think might be willing to do that. I would just say that that’s not my job. My job is to look inside my own heart and mind and come to a conclusion about what it is that I think.”

Both Minnesota senators publicly supported the House impeachment inquiry last year, arguing that all of the facts should be laid out. Smith supported an impeachment inquiry in September, at the time saying that “we must fully and fairly open a process to lay out all the facts.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Smith’s colleague, has said much of the same. Both have also pledged to be impartial during the trial.

But Smith was resolute that, while her job is to evaluate the facts during the trial, the facts made clear during the House impeachment investigation seemed to be crystal clear.

“The facts aren’t really in dispute … the President used the powers of his office to ask a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election to benefit his presidential prospects and he conditioned release of foreign aid on Ukraine opening up a public investigation,” Smith said.

“I don’t believe those facts are in question. The question before the Senate, however, is not whether or not the president should be impeached. The question is whether these facts add up.”