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The Start Of Trump's 2nd Impeachment Trial Is Hours Away

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Today, the U.S. Senate begins trying former President Trump for his role in last month's insurrection at the Capitol. This, of course, is Trump's second impeachment trial, and this time he's accused of inciting that deadly riot. Democrats and some Republicans insist Trump must be held responsible. Here's Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Following the despicable attack on January the 6, there must - there must - be truth and accountability if we are going to move forward, heal and bring our country together once again.

PFEIFFER: But Trump's lawyers and most Republicans object to the process outright, and they have signaled they won't support conviction. For more on this, we're joined by national political correspondent Mara Liasson and congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Good morning to both of you.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: And, Claudia, just yesterday, Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed on the structure of the trial. What did they agree on?

GRISALES: The trial will begin at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, with four hours equally divided between the impeachment managers and Trump's defense team to argue the constitutionality of the trial. Most Republicans said it was not during an initial vote last month. Now the vote again on this question, and it should pass with a majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans. That's followed by two days of arguments with the impeachment managers and defense team each getting up to eight hours a day. Then senators will get up to four hours to question the legal teams. And then they'll consider a vote on whether to call witnesses.

This will be followed by closing arguments and deliberations to vote on whether to convict the president. Originally, the trial was going to pause for Jewish Sabbath on Friday night to resume Sunday, but Trump's lawyer, David Schoen, suddenly withdrew that request last night. So the trial could continue until Saturday and then pause again to start on Monday.

PFEIFFER: And, Claudia, Majority Leader Schumer has pledged that the trial will allow each side ample time to make their arguments.

GRISALES: Exactly. The parameters set out says he will allow each side to get the time needed to present the entirety of the case. That said, Senate Democrats and Republicans are ready to ensure this is wrapped up quickly, especially since they were firsthand witnesses and want to move on to Biden's agenda as quickly as possible.

PFEIFFER: Firsthand because they were in that building.

GRISALES: Yeah, exactly.

PFEIFFER: Mara, how have former President Trump and his team responded so far?

LIASSON: According to the legal brief from Trump's lawyers, they are planning on a very narrow, process-oriented defense. First, they say this is - trial is unconstitutional because he's no longer in office. And then they focus very narrowly on the one speech that he gave at the rally on January 6, saying that just because a group of criminals, quote, "completely misunderstood him," he can't be held responsible. They focus on his language, saying the use of the word fight - remember, the rioters who breached the Capitol were chanting, fight for Trump - they say that word is no different than when Democrats use the word fight to their supporters.

They say very little about Trump's lies about election fraud. They say merely that he was exercising his First Amendment rights to express his beliefs that the election results were, quote, "suspect." Now, that's very different from the more expansive view that's going to be taken by Democrats. They're going to lay out a pattern of Trump's statements over many months - the lies about if he lost, it would be stolen from him; then when he lost, the election was stolen from him; the claim that former Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the results. They say he violated his oath of office; he has to be held accountable. I think you're going to see a real battle for public opinion, not just for votes in the Senate.

PFEIFFER: And, Claudia, that pattern that Mara just described, how do impeachment managers, the people trying Trump, plan to try to show that pattern?

GRISALES: They'll pick out examples in the weeks and months leading up to this deadly siege. One such example is when we heard from Georgia officials that someone is going to get killed because of his dangerous rhetoric, another when Trump endorsed past violence - such as when his supporters chased and surrounded a Democratic campaign bus on a central Texas highway. In terms of this process argument, they say even Republican legal experts say he can be convicted, noting that the period of elections and peaceful transfer of power are a great source of great national pride. And there is no January exception to impeachment, as a president must answer comprehensively for his conduct in office from his first day through his last.

That all said, two-thirds of the chamber must vote to convict him. So Democrats will need 17 Republicans to join them, and that seems very unlikely right now.

PFEIFFER: And, Mara, we saw - we've seen - that some House Republicans were willing to vote in favor of impeachment. But what do we know about how Senate Republicans will vote?

LIASSON: Well, right now it doesn't look like there'll be more than five Republicans. Those are the people - the number that voted to proceed. We'll know a lot more when we get that first vote on moving forward on the constitutionality of convicting a former official. We do know, in the last couple of days, more conservative constitutional lawyers have come out and said, yes, you can convict an ex-official.

But we've also seen a big shift in the immediate aftermath of January 6. Both Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, were willing to say Trump was responsible. But over the last couple of weeks, they have backtracked, closed ranks, because the Republican base is very loyal to Trump. We've seen a backlash to the 10 Republicans in the House who voted in favor of impeachment. And it's possible that there will be no movement among Republicans.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Mara Liasson and Claudia Grisales. Thank you both.

GRISALES: Thank you.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.