As the US Senate prepares for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, few are as wary of the unintended consequences as the president’s successor.
Joe Biden, president-elect, will take office next week with an ambitious legislative agenda including the quick passage through Congress of a $1.9tn stimulus for the pandemic-battered economy.
But a combative impeachment trial would present an obstacle to those goals, according to William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who served as a domestic policy aide for President Bill Clinton.
“I think that it’s very clear based on what the president-elect has said, and not said, that this is about the last thing he wanted — especially now,” Mr Galston said. “It presents a practical problem, and it presents a political problem.”
Now that Mr Trump has been charged with “incitement to insurrection” in the House of Representatives for whipping up the mob that stormed the Capitol, the article of impeachment must be “walked over” to the Senate, where a trial will take place.
Mr Biden has openly fretted about how Congress will handle the impeachment process. After Mr Trump was charged on Wednesday, he released a statement that called on the Senate to hold the trial “while also working on the urgent business of this nation”, including “getting our vaccine programme on track . . . and our economy going”.
On the practical side, an impeachment trial would also mean a slowdown in the confirmation process of cabinet appointees who require Senate approval.
This week, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell rejected Democratic demands to reconvene the Senate early for an immediate trial, meaning the upper chamber will return next Tuesday, Mr Trump’s final day in office. The trial is likely to start the following afternoon, immediately after Mr Biden’s inauguration, although some Democrats have suggested engineering a delay.
There are already signs of possible hold-ups. US media reported on Thursday that Mr Biden had tapped current deputy defence secretary David Norquist to run the department on an acting basis. He would hold the fort until the president-elect’s nominee, retired four-star general Lloyd Austin, receives a waiver from the House and Senate that he needs because the job is normally occupied by a civilian.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said: “We’re going to need a secretary of state, we’re going to need an attorney-general, we’re going to need a CIA director.”
“And we’re going to need them as soon as possible, especially given the vulnerabilities we have,” he added, referring to the attack on the US Capitol last week. “We don’t want to be in a situation where our adversaries can take advantage of that.”
Matt Bennett, a founder of the centrist Democratic think-tank Third Way, said that filling out the administration posts was especially important given that many agencies have been hollowed out in the waning days of the Trump administration.
“[Biden] needs his team in place, not only because of the normal reasons that you want your team in place, but also because the agencies are barely functioning,” Mr Bennett said.
A drawn-out Senate trial, Mr Galston noted, would also mean “a slowdown of the legislative agenda that he and people around him have clearly been trying to put on a fast-track”.
Following the assault on the Capitol, Mr Biden has tried to stay above the fray of the bitter impeachment debate. Two days after the riot, he made it clear that it was a matter for Congress but that if they proceeded with charging Mr Trump they would also “have to be ready to hit the ground running”.
Still, Mr Bennett suggested there could be a silver lining for Mr Biden, if the media is obsessing over Mr Trump’s trial rather than trying to track every mis-step of the new administration. “If the focus is not on Biden for awhile, I think that is probably all to the good,” he said.
But Mr Galston of the Brookings Institution countered that the trial could make it harder for Mr Biden to fulfil his oft-repeated pledge to restore some bipartisanship to Washington.
The promise is central not only to his hopes of unifying the country after the divisive Trump years, but also to his chances of passing legislation. That is particularly true in the Senate, which the Democrats will soon control by the narrowest of margins — a 50-50 split with vice-president Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaking vote.
“The history of partisan comity during Senate consideration of impeachment resolutions is not a long, happy one,” said Mr Galston. “The risks are obvious, the opportunities few to be seen. The president-elect is doing everything he can to tamp this down.”
Mr Biden has suggested that the Senate could “bifurcate” the impeachment trial from normal Senate proceedings, allowing the upper chamber to begin confirmation hearings and debating his early legislative agenda as it weighs whether to convict Mr Trump.
As Mr Biden told reporters earlier this week, this would mean the Senate spending “a half day with the impeachment and a half day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate as well as moving on the [stimulus] package”.
Some lawmakers said they believed such a bifurcation would be possible. “We certainly stand ready to do both at the same time,” Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator, told CNN on Thursday.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator who caucuses with the Democrats, said the party “must show that we can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time”.
“We must impeach Trump. Yes. We must process Biden’s nominees. Yes. We must pass legislation that addresses the enormous crises facing working families,” he wrote on Twitter.
But others are sceptical that the Senate will be able to multitask. “It has enough trouble doing one thing at once,” Mr Heye said.