Another First for an Impeachment Trial: Meeting During a Pandemic

WASHINGTON — During the last impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, as reporters prowled the Senate hallways awaiting word on whether a key Republican might vote to allow witnesses to be heard, senators were behind closed doors receiving a disturbing briefing about a new virus spreading through China.

When the senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, emerged on that January morning in 2020, he batted away questions about the trial and instead focused on the coronavirus, then a far-off illness that had no bearing on the proceedings.

Little more than a year later, the pandemic is a dominant factor setting the parameters for Mr. Trump’s second impeachment trial, forcing the proceedings to be closed to the public for the first time in modern history and dictating the requirements for hours spent in deliberation and judgment.

Senate officials have scrambled to adapt the decades-old traditions of impeachment trials to the demands of a disease that is still raging in Washington and around the country, adding social distancing and hygienic precautions that have shaped the process.

The proceedings have been limited to the 100 senators — most, if not all, now vaccinated against the virus — and a bare-bones carousel of floor staff and reporters, all masked and spaced six feet apart. The restrictions have added to the intimacy of a painfully personal and graphic video documentation of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol shown by the House impeachment managers, which formed the heart of their case against Mr. Trump on the charge of incitement of insurrection.

Because of limitations on attendance that have been in place since the pandemic took hold last year, the restrictions this week meant that most of the people present for the trial had also been in the Capitol when the pro-Trump mob stormed the joint session of Congress. As the prosecutors played the video at trial, the sounds of the rioters were more deafening in a marbled chamber that was at half its capacity.

The Trump Impeachment ›

What You Need to Know

    • A trial is being held to decide whether former President Donald J. Trump is guilty of inciting a deadly mob of his supporters when they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, violently breaching security measures and sending lawmakers into hiding as they met to certify President Biden’s victory.
    • The House voted 232 to 197 to approve a single article of impeachment, accusing Mr. Trump of “inciting violence against the government of the United States” in his quest to overturn the election results. Ten Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to impeach him.
    • To convict Mr. Trump, the Senate would need a two-thirds majority to be in agreement. This means at least 17 Republican senators would have to vote with Senate Democrats to convict.
    • A conviction seems unlikely. Last month, only five Republicans in the Senate sided with Democrats in beating back a Republican attempt to dismiss the charges because Mr. Trump is no longer in office. Only 27 senators say they are undecided about whether to convict Mr. Trump.
    • If the Senate convicts Mr. Trump, finding him guilty of “inciting violence against the government of the United States,” senators could then vote on whether to bar him from holding future office. That vote would only require a simple majority, and if it came down to party lines, Democrats would prevail with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
    • If the Senate does not convict Mr. Trump, the former president could be eligible to run for public office once again. Public opinion surveys show that he remains by far the most popular national figure in the Republican Party.

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