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Donald Trumps hopes of avoiding conviction by the US Senate received a boost on Tuesday when 45 Republicans tried to dismiss his impeachment trial before it even began.
The procedural vote was not enough to prevent the trial going ahead, since 55 senators voted that it should, but it did suggest that Democrats face an uphill battle to get the 67 senators they will need for a conviction on a two-thirds majority vote.
Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on the charge of incitement of insurrection following the storming of the US Capitol, including the Senate chamber, by an angry mob on 6 January. Senators gathered at the scene of the crime on Tuesday to begin his trial.
After they were sworn in and signed the oath book each using a different pen due to coronavirus precautions Rand Paul of Kentucky challenged the legitimacy of the trial.
He argued on a point of order that, since Trump is no longer president, pressing ahead with it violates the constitution.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, dismissed Pauls theory as flat-out wrong, contending: Its been completely debunked by constitutional scholars from all across the political spectrum The history and precedent is clear. The Senate has the power to try former officials.
Schumer said: The theory that the Senate cant try former officials would amount to a constitutional get-out-of-jail-free card for any president who commits an impeachable offence.
Senators then voted 55-45 against Pauls point of order, ensuring the trial will proceed but also signalling the strength of Trumps residual support among Republicans in the Senate and beyond.
The only five Republicans who voted to go ahead with the trial were the longtime Trump critics Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Romney was the sole Republican to vote for Trumps removal from office at his first impeachment trial a year ago.
Trump is the first president to have been twice impeached by the House of Representatives and the first to face a trial after leaving power.
The House approved a single article of impeachment the equivalent of an indictment in a criminal trial on 13 January, accusing him of inciting an insurrection with a speech to supporters before they stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. A police officer and four other people died in the riot.
The nine House Democrats who will serve as prosecutors set the trial in motion on Monday by delivering the article of impeachment to the Senate in a solemn march along the same halls where the mob rampaged three weeks ago.
The supreme court chief justice, John Roberts, is not presiding at the trial, as he did during Trumps first impeachment, because the president is no longer in office. Instead, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who serves in the largely ceremonial role of Senate president pro tempore, oversaw proceedings.
The trial will begin in earnest in the week of 8 February. Despite his departure, Trump remains a significant force among Republicans and his supporters have vowed to mount election challenges to senators who support conviction.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, tweeted: 45 GOP Senators just voted that Trumps trial is unconstitutional since he isnt in office now. Those who thought 17 R Senators would somehow vote to convict Trump have presumably awakened from their dream. As guilty as Trump is, Rs still cower before him.
Joe Biden told CNN that the trial has to happen but doubted the chances of conviction.