In the moments after former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate for a second time in a little more than a year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rose to speak.
His message was clear: the former President could not be the future of the Republican Party. Even as McConnell voted that Trump was not guilty Saturday for inciting an insurrection – raising constitutional and specific legal objections – McConnell’s words underscored the challenge for the Republican Party going forward. They are torn between two competing interests: sticking with Trump enough to woo supporters for themselves and erasing Trump’s dangerous final days from the GOP’s legacy.
“Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said on the floor Saturday.
“Anyone who decries his awful behavior is accused of insulting millions of voters. That is an absurd deflection,” McConnell added. “Seventy-four million Americans did not invade the Capitol. Hundreds of rioters did. Seventy-four million Americans did not engineer the campaign of disinformation and rage that provoked it. One person did. Just one. “
The task before Republicans now will be detangling the pieces of Trump’s appeal to carry with them – and how much of the former President’s bombastic and conspiratorial tendencies they can truly leave behind. Republican senators’ acquittal of Trump, they argue, should not be read as an all-out embrace of the former President or what he stood for or even practically as a promise they would back him in 2024 to lead their party in a race for the White House.
“Time is going to take care of that, some way or another,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who voted to acquit, said when asked if Trump should be the future of the party. “But remember in order to be a leader you’ve gotta have followers. So we’re going to find out whoever leads, but everyone is going to be involved, we’re a big tent.”
The Democratic House impeachment managers may not have convinced 17 Republicans to convict Trump for inciting an insurrection, but Republican senators were clearly shaken watching videos of members – and Trump’s own vice president – fleeing for safety as Trump did little to quell the rioters.
The House managers’ case, showing the violent attack and how the danger could have been so much worse, was intended as much as to win a conviction as it was to win the public battle over Trump’s conduct. The guilty votes from seven Republican senators was a significant rebuke, even if it didn’t mean Trump would be formally barred from holding office again.
“I think he is probably not likely to ever be President of the United States again based on what is going on right here right now,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican who voted to acquit Trump. “I think the impeachment process has been damaging because people have seen repeated images of how awful that night was and how inappropriate his response was. While it does not meet the standard in my view of inciting insurrection, it will have had that damaging effect.”
In a Saturday night statement hours after the Senate voted to acquit Trump of inciting the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol, President Joe Biden said that the “substance of the charge is not in dispute,” and noted the bipartisan nature of the vote, with seven Republicans voting with Democrats to find Trump guilty.
“While the final vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge is not in dispute. Even those opposed to the conviction, like Senate Minority Leader McConnell, believe Donald Trump was guilty of a ‘disgraceful dereliction of duty’ and ‘practically and morally responsible for provoking’ the violence unleashed on the Capitol,” Biden said in his first comments since Trump’s acquittal Saturday afternoon.
‘It’s an uncomfortable vote’
Cramer has also said in recent days he would have a “harder” time supporting Trump if he ran for president in the future.
“It would be harder for me given what’s happened, that has got to be part of what weighs on me,” Cramer told CNN.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican moderate from Alaska who voted guilty, told reporters earlier in the week that she too never saw Trump wining another election for president.
“I don’t see how after the American public sees the whole story laid out here – not just in one snippet on this day and another on that – but this whole scenario that has been laid out before us, I just, I don’t see how Donald Trump could be reelected to the presidency and I just don’t see that,” Murkowski said.
Easily the biggest surprise among the Republicans to vote guilty was Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who said long ago he would not run for reelection in 2022. After voting that the trial was unconstitutional earlier this week, he was the only Republican who chose to put that aside to vote to hold Trump accountable for his conduct.
“By what he did and by what he did not do, President Trump violated his oath of office to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Burr said in a statement explaining his vote. “My hope is that with today’s vote America can begin to move forward and focus on the critical issues facing our country today.”
While many Republicans dismissed a conviction on the basis they did not believe it was constitutional to convict an ex-President once he left office, there were few who believed that the events of January 6 – the mob, the shattered windows, the panic, the deaths and injuries – had happened completely independent of Trump. Even many Senate Republicans who found Trump not guilty said the former President bore responsibility for the attack on the Capitol and the lack of effort once it began to stop it. They argued Trump had sought to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power and stop the congressional certification of the November election.
It was a stark contrast to Trump’s first impeachment over efforts to convince Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, when no House Republicans voted to impeach Trump, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was the sole Republican to find him guilty.
Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, looked pained in the final moments of the trial Saturday, telling reporters ultimately it was “an uncomfortable vote.”
Asked if it was the right vote, the South Dakota Republican responded, “it’s an uncomfortable vote and time will tell, but I don’t think there was a good outcome there for anybody.”
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, another Republican who voted guilty, argued Saturday that Trump’s reputation has been badly damaged.
“It was a bipartisan vote. It was the biggest bipartisan vote there ever was,” said Toomey, who is not running for reelection in 2022. “And a majority of senators believed that he was guilty. Not the two-thirds necessary to actually convict by our constitutional standards, but that is an extremely powerful rebuke. And that doesn’t go away. And the American people are aware of what he did.”
‘A clear and convincing majority’
The drama over House Democrats’ short-lived gambit Saturday to haul in a Republican congresswoman to testify at the trial underscored the political realities of the trial and Democrats’ goal to convince the public Trump should not hold office again.
The House impeachment managers knew when they surprised senators of both parties Saturday morning – springing the request to depose Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington onto a shocked chamber – that the testimony would not change the outcome of the trial. There simply was no way for Democrats to change the minds of enough Republican senators who were dug into their position. But her testimony could have created a spectacle with a member of Trump’s own party denouncing his conduct under the bright lights of a Senate impeachment trial.
The House managers ultimately backed down from their call for testimony Saturday, just three hours after they had thrown the trial into chaos, in part due to the concerns that it could turn the trial into a drawn-out political fight, with Trump’s lawyers trying to haul in witnesses like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The other concern was that they could lose Republican guilty votes by dragging out the trial.
The blowback they got from their liberal base about giving up on witnesses paid off when the final vote was heard several hours later. Trump has now been impeached with the support of 10 House Republicans, and seven Senate Republicans voted with Democrats that Trump was guilty.
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead impeachment manager, told reporters after the trial that most Republicans believed the managers had proven their case, even if they voted to acquit on constitutional grounds.
“We have a clear and convincing majority of members of Congress that the President actually incited violent insurrection against the union and against the Congress,” Raskin said.
“Mitch McConnell clearly feels that Donald Trump remains a huge problem for the Republican Party, even if he has been disgraced in the eyes of the country. That is not my jurisdiction, and I really don’t have anything to say about that. They will have to deal with the political dynamics within their own party.”
CNN’s Alex Rogers, Manu Raju and Jason Hoffman contributed to this report.