House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally divulged her timeline for the next steps in the impeachment of President Donald Trump, setting in motion a behind-the-scenes effort among lawmakers to define just how the Senate trial of the President will proceed.
In a closed-door caucus meeting on Tuesday, Pelosi told colleagues they would vote on a resolution on Jan. 15 picking prosecutors for their case and sending the charges passed in the House last month to the Senate, effectively paving the way for the Senate to start its trial assessing if the House’s evidence warrants Trump’s removal from office. The Senators will serve as jurors in the trial. Two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 members, must vote to convict Trump in order for him to be removed from office. That would require 20 Republicans to defect from what, to this point, is a unified GOP.
The House vote comes after a nearly month-long delay, during which Democrats in both chambers unsuccessfully pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to guarantee witness testimony and document subpoenas as part of the trial.
But, because this is Congress, where procedure and precedent dictate the business of the day, an entire process has to unfold before the Senate can begin what most Americans would recognize as a trial. And it is still unclear exactly how the trial will unfold, although McConnell has provided a few hints.
While there is still a lot we don’t know, TIME reporters have read through Senate procedures to discern what could happen next.
Why does the House have to vote to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, if they already voted to impeach Trump?
By impeaching Trump, the House is simply charging him with misconduct; specifically, in Trump’s case, with abusing the power of his office and obstructing Congress. In order for him to be removed from office, those charges need to be transmitted to the Senate for a trial. House-appointed representatives, or impeachment managers, will make the case to the Senate why those charges warrant conviction and removal.
In the past, when the Senate has considered impeachment charges, the House has voted on a resolution that authorizes managers to make the case to the senate. The text of the resolution the House plans to vote on has not yet been released. But if precedent is any indication, it will essentially inform the Senate that certain lawmakers have been appointed as managers to make this case, and that they are formally transmitting the articles of impeachment. The two components could either be separate resolutions or combined into one.
Pelosi will appoint the impeachment managers, but has kept both the names of her choices and how many she will select close to the vest. The House appointed 13 managers during the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton two decades ago.
After the resolution passes the House, the managers are expected to read the articles aloud on the Senate floor.
How soon could the trial start?
Senate procedure dictates that after the House passes its resolution, the managers are expected to carry physical copies of the articles of impeachment over to the Senate, where they will read the articles.
Under Senate impeachment rules, the chamber has until 1 p.m. the day after the articles are presented to the Senate to begin considering them. McConnell said on Tuesday he expects the trial will start in earnest on Jan. 21 by passing the rules that will govern it, although ceremonial items, like swearing in the necessary parties an Senators signing a book joining other Senators who have bee part of impeachments since 1986 onward, could occur this week. All 100 Senators will officially need to be sworn in as jurors, as will Chief Justice John Roberts, who is expected to preside over the trial.
Who are the key players in the trial?
There are four groups of people to watch during the trial: the House impeachment managers, Trump’s defense team, the 100 Senators and Roberts.
In trial speak, the House impeachment managers are essentially the prosecutors, arguing why their evidence is damning enough to warrant Trump’s removal from office. Trump’s team of attorneys is the defense, arguing why it isn’t. The Senators are the jury, who will weigh the evidence and make the ultimate call. And Roberts will be the one presiding over the trial. There is a provision, though, by which Senators can overrule Roberts, meaning they never full cede control over their chamber to a member of a co-equal branch of government.
As noted above, Pelosi has been coy about revealing the list of impeachment managers. But Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler, who chair, respectively, the House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence and the House Judiciary Committee and have held prominent roles in the process so far, are almost certain to be among the lawmakers selected.
Like Pelosi, the White House Counsel’s office has also been reticent about revealing its team. Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow told TIME that White House Counsel Pat Cippollone will be leading the defense team, and that he, Sekulow, will be assisting.
What exactly happens during an impeachment trial?
Put simply, Senators — now sworn in as jurors — hear evidence and arguments presented by the prosecution (the House) and the defense (the White House) to determine if the President should be removed from office.
But it is the Senate that determines what that will actually look like. Aside from stipulating that Senators be sworn in under oath and that the Chief Justice preside, the Constitution provides little clarity in terms of trial structure.
Consequently, one of the first things the Senate must do after the trial has commenced is to pass a rules package laying out that structure. This rules package has already been a source of intra-chamber controversy because Democrats wanted it to include testimony from witnesses. McConnell has said he has the votes to pass a rules package similar to the one the Senate employed during Clinton’s impeachment trial — which does not automatically include that testimony — although he has not released the actual text.
Under that precedent, the trial would begin with opening statements from both the prosecution and defense, both of which could last several days on each side. After both sides present their arguments, Senators can submit written questions for the prosecution and defense. And after that, the Senate would vote on calling additional witnesses. (More on that below).
Will we learn anything new, or is the trial mostly just both sides repeating the arguments we have already heard?
It depends. The Senate trial will be the first time that Trump’s defense team officially makes their case during the impeachment process because they declined that opportunity in the House. But the team has been mum if there will be new revelations and what evidence Trump’s team can offer to back them up. Presumably, this would force another debate about witnesses and documents.
Most likely, any new information that emerges would result from witness testimony, and that is hardly a given. Democrats have identified four key witnesses they want to hear from who did not appear before the House: former National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and White House officials Michael Duffey and Robert Blair. Bolton said earlier this month he will testify pursuant to a subpoena.
But requesting witness testimony would require 51 votes, which means four Republican Senators would have to break with their party. While some moderate Senators, like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, have already said they want to hear from witnesses, it is still unclear if there will ultimately be enough votes.
Some Republicans have argued that if Democrats are able to call their requested witnesses, then Republicans should be able to do the same. Some of Trump’s strongest allies in particular are requesting testimony from Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who sat on the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that Trump was pushing the Ukrainian government to investigate in the July phone call that led to his impeachment.
McConnell did not rule out that prospect on Tuesday. “I think it’s certainly appropriate to point out that both sides would want to call witnesses they want to hear from,” he said. “So when you get to that issue, I can’t imagine that only the witnesses who our Democratic colleagues would want to call would be called.”
Still, there remains an uneasiness among Republicans to veer off their mandate in considering the actual charges against the President. While they personally may want to know just how Hunter Biden won a lucrative consulting contract in Ukraine, they also don’t want to turn the Senate into a partisan sideshow over nepotism.
After witnesses are called — or if the votes to request witnesses are unsuccessful — Senators will proceed to deliberating on the verdict behind closed doors.
How long will the trial last?
We don’t know. Clinton’s trial lasted approximately five weeks from start to finish, but the prosecution obtained depositions from three witnesses. Opening statements in Clinton’s trial lasted six days, with each side using three.
What happens if Trump is convicted?
The Senate has never voted to convict a sitting President, and it’s unlikely they will now, given the chamber’s Republican majority. But if two-thirds of the Senate finds Trump guilty and worthy of conviction, he will be removed from office.
What happens if Trump is acquitted?
If, as expected, there are not 67 votes to convict Trump, the trial concludes without his removal from office. But a conviction does not erase the House’s work. As Pelosi touted recently, Trump will still have a permanent asterisk denoting impeachment as part of his legacy. “Ten months from now we will have an election if we don’t have him removed sooner,” Pelosi said last Sunday. “But, again, he’ll be impeached forever.”
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson/Washington