Casting himself as reluctant but duty-bound, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) gaveled in the start of former president Donald Trump's second impeachment trial on Tuesday.
"As many of you know, I did not ask or seek to preside over this trial," Leahy wrote in a letter to his colleagues released just before the trial commenced on Tuesday afternoon. "Yet while I occupy the constitutional office of the President pro tempore, it is incumbent upon me to do so."
Leahy is at the center of the political universe this week as he serves as both judge and juror in the first-ever impeachment trial of a former American president. Not only will he preside over the proceedings, which kicked off on Tuesday, but he will be one of 100 Senators to vote on whether to convict Trump of inciting last month's deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
Leahy — who, as president pro tempore is third in line for the presidency — assumed the role of presiding officer only after U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris passed on it. His main duties will include ruling on any procedural questions that arise and reading aloud written questions submitted by senators during the trial.
To prepare for the task, he reviewed hundreds of pages of constitutional law and procedure and tapped an impeachment expert at the University of North Carolina to serve as his special counsel, according to the New York Times.
“I’ve presided hundreds of hours — I don’t know how many rulings I’ve made,” Leahy told the Times. “I’ve never had anyone, Republican or Democrat, say my rulings were not fair. That is what the presiding officer is supposed to do.”
Leahy kicked off Tuesday's proceedings by leading his colleagues in the Pledge of Allegiance before holding a procedural rules vote. He then turned the floor over to the trial's participants, who planned to spend the afternoon debating the trial's constitutionality. If the Senate approves moving forward as expected, the trial will begin in earnest Wednesday.
House impeachment managers will argue that Trump should be found guilty of inspiring the violence by pointing to both his refusal to accept his electoral loss and his comments during a rally on the day of chaos. Trump's attorneys will attempt to shield him with the First Amendment — while likely continuing to argue the trial itself is unconstitutional because he has already left office.
The trial is not expected to last long and could become the fastest presidential impeachment proceeding in history. Each side will have up to 16 hours to make their case, and a final vote could come early next week.
While a conviction would permit Senators to bar Trump from ever seeking federal office again, Democrats appear unlikely to be able to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority needed for that result.
Trump's defense attorneys have nevertheless sought to undermine the trial before it began, citing Leahy's role among their many complaints, despite the fact that is common for a member of the Senate to preside over sensitive votes.
In a legal briefing filed Monday, they wrote, “Now, instead of the Chief Justice, the trial will be overseen by a biased and partisan Senator who will purportedly also act as a juror while ruling on issues that arise during trial."
In his Tuesday letter, Leahy pledged impartiality, writing, "My intention and solemn obligation is to conduct this trial with fairness to all."