WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate opened the historic impeachment trial of President Donald Trump with quiet ceremony Thursday — senators standing at their desks to swear an oath of “impartial justice” as jurors, House prosecutors formally reciting the charges and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding.
The trial, only the third such undertaking in American history, is unfolding at the start of the election year, a time of deep political division in the nation. Four of the senators sitting in judgment of Trump are running for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge him in the fall, taking time away from campaigning.
“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye!” intoned the Senate’s sergeant at arms, calling the proceedings to order.
Senators filled the chamber, an unusual sight in itself, sitting silently under strict rules that prohibit talking or cellphones, for a trial that will test not only Trump’s presidency but also the nation’s three branches of power and its system of checks and balances.
The Constitution mandates the chief justice serve as the presiding officer, and Roberts made the short trip across the street from the Supreme Court to the Capitol.
He was sworn in by Senate president pro tempore — Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — before in turn swearing in the senators.
Roberts has long insisted judges are not politicians, and is expected to serve mostly as a referee.
“Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you God?” he asked.
The senators responded they would.
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Trump faces two charges after the House voted last month to impeach him. One, that he abused his presidential power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, using military aid to the country as leverage. Trump also is charged with obstructing Congress’ ensuing probe.
The president insists he did nothing wrong, and he dismissed the trial anew at the White House: “It’s totally partisan. It’s a hoax.”
Eventual acquittal is expected in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, new revelations are mounting about Trump’s actions.
The Government Accountability Office said the White House violated federal law in withholding the security assistance to Ukraine, which shares a border with hostile Russia.
At the same time, an indicted associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, has turned over to prosecutors documents linking the president to the shadow foreign policy being run by Giuliani.
The developments applied fresh pressure to senators to call more witnesses for the trial, a source of contention that still is to be resolved. The White House has instructed officials not to comply with subpoenas from Congress related to the proceedings.
“What is the president hiding? What is he afraid of?” asked Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the new information from Parnas demands an investigation, which she doesn’t expect from Trump’s attorney general. “This is an example of all of the president’s henchmen, and I hope that the senators do not become part of the president’s henchmen.”
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Before the swearing-in, House Democrats prosecuting the case stood before the Senate and Rep. Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee formally read the articles of impeachment.
“House Resolution 755 Impeaching Donald John Trump, president of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors,” he began, reading the nine pages.
Security was tight.
“I thought this is a historic moment, and you could have heard a pin drop,” said Republican John Cornyn of Texas. “And so I think the gravity of what are undertaking I think was sinking in for all of us.”
Republican House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a far different view of the charges.
He opened the chamber decrying Pelosi’s decision to hand out “souvenir pens” after she signed the resolution transmitting the charges.
“This final display neatly distilled the House’s entire partisan process into one perfect visual,” McConnell said. “It was a transparently partisan process from beginning to end.”
The Senate will issue a summons to the White House to appear, with the president’s legal team expected to respond by Saturday. Opening statements are Tuesday.
In U.S. history, only President Bill Clinton in 1999 and President Andrew Johnson in 1868 have had impeachment trials in the Senate. Both were acquitted.
President Richard Nixon in 1974 became the first president in history to resign, doing so before the full House could vote to impeach him.