© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trump Impeachment Trial Has 'Exceedingly Compressed' Timeline Compared To Other Impeachment Trials

Theodore R. Davis
Illustration of President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in the United States Senate, first published in Harper's Weekly.

The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began Tuesday. Trump is charged with abuse of power and obstruction of justice, making him only the third president to be impeached. Two thirds of the Senate must find President Trump guilty in order to convict him. If that happens, he’ll be the first president convicted in an impeachment trial.

There have been a lot of complaints about how the impeachment process has gone so far, and much of the debate is rooted in the vague framework provided by the U.S. Constitution. 

"I’ve learned over the years of teaching constitutional law [that] people want there to be an answer to constitutional questions, right? They want it to be like, you know, when you’re watching a football game and the networks always have this officiating expert who has the answer. It doesn’t tend to work like that," says Chad Oldfather, a constitutional law professor at Marquette Law School. 

Since there are so few historical examples of presidential impeachment, there isn’t much precedent to rely on. Still, understanding both the Constitution and the way impeachment has evolved over time, allows us to better understand how this current trial compares to what’s come before it.

"What [Sen. Mitch McConnell] has proposed is a framework for an exceedingly compressed trial that could be over as early as next week."

When President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, his trial lasted nearly three months. In 1999, when President Bill Clinton's trial began, it lasted five weeks. In both cases, new evidence was presented in the Senate trial and new witnesses came forward. By contrast, President Trump's trial is expected to last less than two weeks, and it's unclear if new evidence or witnesses will be allowed. 

"What [Sen. Mitch McConnell] has proposed is a framework for an exceedingly compressed trial that could be over as early as next week ... And a critique of that approach, of course, is by speeding everything up it reduces the ability for the House members who are prosecuting the impeachment to respond to things that take place and to fully make a case," Oldfather says.

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.