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Senate Historian Emeritus Donald Ritchie On What An Impeachment Trial Would Look Like


So a question - what are the actual mechanics of impeaching a president? The U.S. Constitution outlines the process but only in the briefest way. Article 1, Section 2 says the House has the sole power of impeachment. Article 1, Section 3 says the Senate will conduct the trial.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Under the Senate rules, we're required to take it up if the House does go down that path.

KELLY: That would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking on CNBC this week. It's what McConnell said next that is raising some eyebrows.


MCCONNELL: How long you're on it is a whole different matter.

KELLY: How long you are on it, a whole different matter. All right, so what are the rules governing a Senate impeachment trial? A question for Don Ritchie, who is historian emeritus of the U.S. Senate.

Don Ritchie, welcome.


KELLY: Start there. Are there written rules for how long the Senate would have to spend deliberating?

RITCHIE: Well, there's a very short phrase in the Constitution that the Senate can write its own rules, the Senate and House. And the courts really leave it up to the Senate and House to write their rules, and that includes the rules of impeachment.

KELLY: So just to the question of timing, it sounds as though if a Republican-controlled Senate wanted to get this over with really quick, if they wanted to deliberate - I don't know - an hour, they could do that?

RITCHIE: Well, someone could move to dismiss the charges, like Senator Byrd did in 1999, but that was defeated, and then they moved on to hold the trial. What they did in the Clinton case was actually to hold the first-ever joint conference of the Republicans and Democrats. They went into the Old Senate Chamber. They closed the doors. They wouldn't let any of the staff in, including the chaplain, so one of the senators gave the prayer. And then they had a session in which they argued out the rules of impeachment.

KELLY: And I'm trying to remember back. This was Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, who were...

RITCHIE: Were the two leaders.

KELLY: ...The leaders of the two parties.

RITCHIE: They were trying to work out a bipartisan agreement. And at one point in the discussion, Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Phil Gramm, who are about as far apart politically and ideologically as any two senators, both came to the same conclusion, which was we don't have enough agreement to write the rules to get to home plate; we have enough agreement to get to second base. Let's go to second base, and once we get to second base, we'll write the rules to get to home plate.

KELLY: We'll figure it out from there, huh.

RITCHIE: And then people told me it was like the end of a football game - senators were high-fiving each other.

KELLY: (Laughter).

RITCHIE: They'd come to an agreement. And they voted 100-0 to adopt that set of rules.

KELLY: A hundred to nothing.

RITCHIE: Which meant it was going to be very hard to change those rules during the trial. It took five weeks to conduct that trial.

KELLY: The chief justice of the United States has a role to play here. What is that?

RITCHIE: That's right. In any other impeachment of any other federal officer, the presiding officer of the Senate would preside. But since the vice president is the person who will benefit by the removal of a president from office, the vice president is out of the picture, and the chief justice of the United States comes across the street and presides, as William Rehnquist did in 1999.

KELLY: So in this case, should this ever reach this stage, it would be Chief Justice John Roberts.


KELLY: And in this scenario, senators are effectively serving as - what? - the jury?

RITCHIE: They are the jury, yes.

KELLY: And meanwhile, there are lawyers brought in - outside counsel. How does that work?

RITCHIE: Yes. Now, on the House side, only members of the House of Representatives can make the case for the impeachment. But on the president's side, the president appoints a set of lawyers who come and defend him.

KELLY: So of the ground rules that you describe being hammered out the last time around - the Clinton impeachment trial 1999 - what is the possibility that something along those lines would be hammered out and serve as an example this time around, again, if and when we get there?

RITCHIE: Well, I can assure you that the parliamentarians and others at the Senate are going back over the rules, going back to the 1780s, looking at each of the changes. As I said, the Constitution allows the Senate to write its own rules, and that's what they'll do.

KELLY: Have you been going back and brushing up and trying to remember all the details from 1999?

RITCHIE: Yes, I've gone back and read quite a bit of the materials that we put out back then.

KELLY: And what strikes you from it?

RITCHIE: Well, it's interesting how history doesn't necessarily repeat itself, but as Mark Twain said, it sometimes rhymes.

KELLY: That is Don Ritchie, Senate historian emeritus. He served 40 years at the U.S. Senate.

Thank you.

RITCHIE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY SOM'S "BAYBEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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