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Lisa Lerer  December 18th, 2019.  The House of Representatives voted tonight to impeach President Trump, a truly historic moment in what has been an unconventional and polarizing presidency. During an epic debate today, Democrats and Republicans clashed on the House floor, delivering hours of speeches before casting largely party-line votes on two articles of impeachment.

To get some perspective on this remarkable day, we turned to Nicholas Fandos, our indefatigable congressional reporter, to explain the significance of what we just watched and give us a preview of what’s coming next.

Hi, Nick. So, talk to us about what you just witnessed. How big a moment is this?

This is a moment that can only be described in historical terms. President Trump is now only the third American president ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives. In terms of the three-year struggle between this unconventional president and the Democrats, who view him as nothing short of a threat to democracy, this will certainly go down as one of the most consequential inflection points.

Yes, this is a moment historians will be writing about for a long time. But the process is far from over. Where do we go from here?

Somewhat anticlimactically, the House and Senate will now go home for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. But we expect, early in the new year, the Senate to reconvene and start sitting basically as a jury in a trial of the president. We don’t know how long that trial will last. We don’t know how expansive it will be. The outcome seems most likely to be the president’s acquittal and continuation in office — not a conviction and removal from office. But that is the next unpredictable phase in this whole saga.

Democrats had a lot of control in the House, but they’re the minority in the Senate. Do they have any control in the next phase?

Democrats will appoint a group of a half-dozen lawmakers to serve as “impeachment managers,” or prosecutors in the Senate trial. And they can recommend that the Senate call witnesses. They’ll be able to orally present their case to the Senate and potentially question any witnesses who do come up. But, by and large, they will now be at the mercy of the (Republican) senators who control the process.

How closely is Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, coordinating with the president and his office?

McConnell said last week that he would closely coordinate the parameters of the trial. Now, whether he decides to take it upon himself to be an advocate for the president’s position in the trial, that remains to be seen. But as of right now, it’s not entirely clear where he will fall, except he’s made clear he thinks the Democratic case is a weak one and that it will lead to acquittal.

Which senators, beyond the leadership, should we keep a close eye on?

There are a couple of groups who are most worth watching. There are the centrist Republicans who tend to stick up for the institution. And there are the retiring Republicans who care a lot about their legacy. Both of those groups have reasons to want to show the American public that whatever outcome they reach, they had a fair trial. So watch those two groups, plus an overlapping third one: Republicans who are up for re-election in swing states next year.

If you take those three groups and you assume that Democrats more or less hold together, at least in terms of how the Senate ought to operate a trial and carry it out, there’s a potential for a kind of coalition that could overpower the majority leader and go a long way in setting the terms of what this process looks like and whether they call witnesses, whether they get additional evidence, how long it lasts, all of that.

In the Democratic primary, a trial presents a big logistical problem because it’s coming right up against the Iowa caucuses. How much are Republicans gaming out the politics of that?

I don’t think it’s that much on their radar because it’s just hard to game out, frankly. The issue is that when the Senate is sitting in trial, it does so six days a week, meaning a number of the Democratic presidential candidates aren’t going to be on the ground in Iowa stumping. They’re going to be sitting at their desks in the Senate chamber.

I don’t know that Republicans feel at this point that they know which candidate would be the easiest for them to beat or what different trial outcomes might do to that process. It’s probably inconvenient for the senators who are running for the nomination but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot of gamesmanship that seems to be happening at this point.

And the senators can’t even bring their cellphones into the chamber, right? Or speak? Seems like it’s going to be quite a challenging few weeks for them.

This is really unlike anything else that senators ever do. And, frankly, that we see in political life anymore. They’re being asked to take an oath to set aside party politics. I’m not sure anyone will completely do that. But that alone sets the stage for something that is at least on its face different than what we’re used to these days.


 

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