WASHINGTON – An impeachment trial is both a legal proceeding and a political event, and the upcoming prosecution of former President Donald Trump has spawned a complex set of political challenges for Republicans and Democrats, as well as the defiant defendant.
Republicans are fighting about whether to move past Trump by convicting him – and blocking him from seeking office again – or to keep faith with the former president and his large base of voters before elections in 2022 and 2024.
The Democrats and President Joe Biden run the risk of distracting themselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic by conducting the trial of a politician who is already out of office. Opening arguments are set for Feb. 9.
The trial "will make it difficult for Joe Biden to unify the country," pollster Frank Luntz said. "It will be very difficult for the Republicans to unify their party. It will be difficult for the Democrats to push their agenda because everybody will be talking about impeachment.
"In short," Luntz said, "it's pretty bad for everyone."
At the center of it all: Trump and his hold on the Republican Party.
Trump plots strategy in seclusion
If the Senate convicts Trump – a long shot since 17 Republicans would have to join all 50 Democrats – it could vote on whether to bar him from public office, potentially crippling plans for another Trump presidential run in 2024.
Trump has been unusually quiet since leaving the White House last week, mainly because Twitter barred him shortly after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
That attack triggered the Democratic-led House to impeach Trump on Jan. 13. The impeachment article accuses him of inciting the insurrection by making false claims of election fraud behind Biden's victory and pressuring state and federal officials to reverse the result.
Many doubt there are enough Republican votes for conviction. Tuesday, a total of 45 GOP senators – more than enough for acquittal – voted in support of a motion that would have dismissed the trial by declaring it unconstitutional.
Secluded in his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump has made clear he expects Senate Republicans to defend him and vote for acquittal, said two aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Trump threatened to back 2022 primary challengers against Republicans who oppose him or refused to help overturn the election, aides said.
Trump has already gotten involved in one 2022 race. He endorsed his former press secretary Sarah Sanders shortly after she announced she is running for governor of Arkansas.
The potency of Trump's political appeal could be affected by events at his impeachment trial.
House prosecutors said they will provide evidence of how Trump tried to get state and federal officials to break the law for him and how his lies fueled the rage of supporters who attacked the Capitol, all part of the president's effort to stay in power.
Trump retained South Carolina lawyer Butch Bowers and is preparing a defense that argues he acted within his rights and did not instruct voters to commit violence.
If the Senate does convict Trump and bars him from future office, he has discussed forming a third political party. Aides discounted the possibility, at least so far.
In a carefully worded statement, Trump political adviser Jason Miller said, "The President has made clear his goal is to win back the House and Senate for Republicans in 2022."
"There’s nothing that’s actively being planned regarding an effort outside of that," Miller said about the prospective creation of a so-called Patriot Party. "But it’s completely up to Republican Senators if this is something that becomes more serious.”
Republicans remain divided: Move forward with or without Trump?
As House impeachment prosecutors prepare to turn the Senate chamber into a courtroom, the internal Republican battle over support for Trump is on public display.
When the House voted to impeach, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., let it be known he didn't mind if Trump faced charges. McConnell said he hasn't made up his own mind on whether to vote to convict Trump. He was one of the 45 Republicans who voted Tuesday against holding the trial.
In a floor speech, McConnell said Trump "provoked" rioters who had been "fed lies" about the elections – comments Republicans could interpret as a signal that it would be OK to vote to convict Trump.
Pro-Trump Republicans pushed back at McConnell. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News that McConnell was "wrong" in his analysis.
Though he praised McConnell as a leader, Graham said the Kentuckian was "giving some legitimacy to this impeachment process that I think is wrong."
Graham and other Republicans said convicting Trump and barring him from office would alienate his base of working-class voters, dooming Republicans to minority-party status for years.
Other Republicans argued Trump is dragging down the party. Many blamed him for the loss of two GOP Senate seats in Georgia runoff elections this month, calling those defeats signs of things to come if the party maintains fealty to Trump.
"You have a divided party right now," said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor at The Cook Political Report.
Some Senate Republicans said they would be vocal in defending Trump and opposing the very idea of trying an ex-officeholder.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the impeachment could backfire on Democrats who run the Senate.
"A lot of Americans are going to think it’s strange that the Senate is spending its time trying to convict and remove from office a man who left office a week ago," he tweeted.
The Democrats move forward – for better or worse
Democrats said Trump needs to be held accountable for the insurrection that will resonate in American politics for years.
Responding to Republican complaints, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "The theory that the Senate can’t try former officials would amount to a constitutional get-out-of-jail-free card for any president who commits an impeachable offense."
There are risks for Democrats. They are pushing the impeachment trial at the same time members are negotiating with Republicans on Biden proposals to fight COVID-19 and stimulate the economy.
Biden said it is the Senate's decision to hold a Trump trial, but he hopes the leadership will find ways "to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of the nation." White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden "continues to feel that way."
Conviction may be a hard vote for Democratic senators in closely divided swing states. Two new Democratic senators – Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona – won elections to unexpired terms. They both have to run again in 2022 in states that have elected many Republicans in recent years.
Democrats have said that one of their goals is to bar Trump from future public office – a development that would have unpredictable effects on congressional and presidential races over the next two political cycles.
Luntz, the pollster, said he might advise Trump to attend the trial and testify.
If Trump wins an acquittal, Luntz said, he can claim vindication and campaign again as the "victim" of political chicanery. "Donald Trump loves to be the victim," Luntz said.
If he's convicted? "Then he's done," Luntz said.
Taylor of The Cook Political Report noted that predicting what Trump might do is a "futile" exercise.
"He will clearly do what he wants to do," Taylor said. "He's not going to stick to a script."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump, GOP see political fates tied to impeachment trial