WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Saturday to acquit former President Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol last month, marking the end of his second impeachment trial.
Seven Republican senators broke ranks to support conviction. The 57-43 vote fell far short of the 67 votes needed for conviction, but it was the most bipartisan guilty vote in a presidential impeachment trial and exposed the fractures in a Republican party divided over its future.
The Republicans who voted for conviction were Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Trump is the first president to be impeached twice and his trial was the first in American history of a former president. The House impeached him last month on a charge of inciting the insurrection Jan. 6, when a violent mob of his supporters ransacked the Capitol. The riot left five people dead, including a police officer.
“The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead impeachment manager. “This trial, in the final analysis, is not about Donald Trump. The country and the world know who Donald Trump is. This trial is about who we are.”
In their closing arguments as they did during the five-day trial, House Democrats played a collection of videos that showed the graphic violence stemming from the rioters Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, including heretofore confidential security footage that revealed how close the rioters came to lawmakers and staff.
The videos — some filmed just steps from where the trial took place — provided an emotional punch to their case.
Trump’s attorneys countered that the former president had done nothing wrong, and that his speech was protected by the First Amendment and that Trump’s often pugilistic rhetoric was not meant to be taken literally.
“There was no evidence Mr. Trump intended his words to incite violence,” Michael van der Veen told senators in his closing argument. “The violence was preplanned and premeditated by a group of independent actors… His words weren’t what set this into motion.”
Most Republicans agreed, arguing that the Constitution didn’t even allow the Senate to hear the trial because Trump is now a private citizen, a sentiment that many legal experts disputed.
Even with Trump’s final fate widely known, the final day of arguments was a roller coaster of political drama. Democrats built an unexpected surge of momentum after winning a vote allowing them to depose a Republican congresswoman who threatened damning testimony against Trump – only to quickly slam on the breaks .
Facing the potential for a drawn out fight over what other witnesses could testify, Democrats balked. They instead brokered a deal to place into the record a statement from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington. It said that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) had told lawmakers he called Trump during the insurrection pleading for the former president to tell the rioters to stand down, and the president did not act, suggesting to McCarthy that the mob was more loyal to him.
Actual testimony from Beutler had the potential to be much more damaging for Trump and his supporters, and Democratic party activists expressed exasperation that the impeachment managers stood down. But they were weighing the damage that would be inflicted on Republicans with the political toll their own party’s agenda would endure in Congress through a prolonged trial. President Biden is eager to move past the impeachment so Congress can focus on confirming his nominees and passing a large COVID-19 relief package. A prolonged trial would have stymied that agenda.
House managers debated whether to call witnesses until at least 3 a.m. Saturday morning, according to a Democrat familiar with the negotiations, and did not notify their Senate counterparts of their plan until about 5 minutes before the trial was set to resume Saturday morning. Once the vote was successful, it became clear the managers didn’t have a comprehensive plan on next steps, according to the Democrat.
The trial may be over, but the fallout will be endure, and created a profound reckoning for the GOP. Lawmakers who voted to acquit did so in the face of considerable evidence that the former president not just instigated the insurrection, but continued to stoke it even as lawmakers and his vice president were trying to escape.
While they may argue their votes were a matter of procedural objections, the acquittal votes could prove complicated baggage. The acquittal further complicates the party’s bid to carve out a clear and unifying message. The Trump faction has again proven itself durable, but it also emerges from this episode damaged. It’s hold on the GOP is diminished, and lawmakers looking to bring the party in a new direction have grown bolder.