Trump Acquitted by Senate in Second Impeachment Trial
(Bloomberg) -- Former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate Saturday on the charge of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol after an unprecedented second impeachment trial that exposed a Republican Party deeply divided over Trump’s conduct and uneasy with his continued role in public life.
The vote was 57-43, falling short of the two-thirds majority required for a conviction but significantly with seven Republicans joining with Democrats and independents in finding Trump guilty on the single impeachment count.
It was the most Senate support to convict a president since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in 1868. Although the impeachment and the events that precipitated it may have soured some voters on Trump, the acquittal leaves the door open to Trump running for president again in 2024.
Few Senate Republicans have defended Trump’s behavior, and even allies like John Cornyn of Texas called his remarks before the storming of the Capitol “reckless.” But in the end, most voted to acquit the president, who continues to have a fervent following among Republican voters.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had criticized Trump’s attempt to overturn the election even before the riot, was among the not guilty votes. After the verdict, McConnell excoriated Trump, saying he is “practically and morally responsible” for sparking the riot.
Trump “seemed determined to either overturn voters decision or torch our institutions on the way out,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. But he said he concluded that because Trump already is out of office he could not be eligible for the punishment of impeachment.
The seven Republican votes represented a surprising break in the Republican solidarity that had largely held through four tumultuous years of Trump’s presidency.
Only one GOP senator, Utah’s Mitt Romney, voted to convict Trump on one impeachment article in his first impeachment trial a little over a year ago. This time Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania joined with Romney in voting to convict Trump.
Sasse, in a statement, cited Trump’s lies about the election and his efforts to overturn the election.
“Those lies had consequences, endangering the life of the vice president and bringing us dangerously close to a bloody constitutional crisis,” Sasse said. “Each of these actions are violations of a president’s oath of office.”
In his statement, Trump thanked his defense attorney’s and members of Congress who backed him while decrying the impeachment.
“This has been yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country,” Trump said in the statement. “No president has ever gone through anything like it, and it continues because our opponents cannot forget the almost 75 million people, the highest number ever for a sitting president, who voted for us just a few short months ago.”
The verdict came after three days of opening arguments from the House impeachment managers and the defense and questions from senators.
The proceedings were sidetracked on Saturday after a request for witness testimony from House impeachment managers.
The request took Senate Democrats by surprise. They were notified at 9:55 a.m. -- just five minutes before the Senate convened -- that the House managers planned to seek witnesses, according to a Democrat familiar with what occurred.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had earlier completed a call with all Democrats in the chamber and urged them to support whatever decision the managers made, and all Democrats voted for witnesses. But after that, it was clear the managers did not have a plan, the Democrat said.
After the Senate voted to hold a debate on witnesses House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense struck a deal that allowed the prosecution to enter into the record a statement from Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler about her secondhand account of a phone call between Trump and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Herrera Beutler, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in the House, said in the publicly released statement that McCarthy told her he asked Trump to call off his supporters. According to Herrera Beutler’s account, Trump first claimed that the rioters were members of the leftist movement Antifa. When McCarthy responded that they were indeed his supporters, Trump told him, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Herrera Beutler said in the statement.
A battle over witnesses -- Trump’s attorney threatened to seek depositions from 100 or more -- risked dragging out the trial, potentially delaying work on President Joe Biden’s agenda. An administration official said the White House wasn’t involved in the discussions or finding the compromise.
With the issue settled, the two sides moved into closing arguments.
“The evidence, the video, documentary, eyewitnesses have only grown stronger and stronger and more detailed right up until today – right up to 10 minutes ago – over the course of this Senate trial,” lead impeachment manager Representative Jamie Raskin said in his closing argument.
During the trial, Senators mostly sat at their desks as the prosecution showed multiple videos of the Capitol overrun by a mob and police officers pummeled, sprayed with bear spray, crushed in doors or assaulted with flagpoles. The images were juxtaposed with videos of Trump’s address to the crowd that day as well his past statements and images of tweets.
The presentation by House impeachment managers included many previously unseen clips showing just how close a violent crowd was to successfully hunting down Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers who had rejected Trump’s baseless claim that the presidential election had been stolen from him.
Democratic managers accused Trump of summoning the mob, telling them to “fight like hell” to overturn the election and then engaging in a dereliction of duty as he stood by without acting to protect the Capitol for hours.
The defense arguments took barely three hours, in part reflecting confidence that there wouldn’t be enough Republican votes for conviction.
Trump’s lawyers said that the words used by the then-president in front of the crowd that eventually marched to the Capitol were common political rhetoric. They showed video montages of Democrats challenging the electoral vote count after Trump’s election and using the word “fight” repeatedly in interviews and speeches.
Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen said the former president’s fiery speech before the attack on the Capitol was protected by the First Amendment, and punishing it with impeachment “would set a dangerous precedent forever.”
He and other members of the defense team argued that Trump had no control over the crowd and that the impeachment was a political act meant to stifle speech that the Democratic majority doesn’t like.
Several Republican senators praised the House impeachment managers for their skill in connecting Trump’s months of claims the election would be stolen, followed by lies that Joe Biden‘s victory was fraudulent, to the incitement of the mob that day and to the violence that followed.
But many of them, like Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 Republican, had already taken a convenient off-ramp to avoid holding Trump to account: Since Trump was no longer president, they said, the trial wasn’t constitutional.
The trial didn’t occur while Trump was still president because McConnell announced Jan. 13 he would refuse to convene the Senate to hold a snap trial after the House vote to impeach him on a single article of incitement of insurrection.
Trump’s lawyers — after a rocky start to the trial with a meandering, rambling opening by Bruce Castor — eventually hammered home what they considered their hole card: Trump’s one line in his speech Jan. 6th where he called on his followers to “peacefully” march on the Capitol. They also played extensive tapes of Democrats urging their followers to “fight,” arguing that there was a double standard.
They contended Trump did not want a violent insurrection but instead a constitutionally protected protest.
Republicans now face a reckoning. Trump has already promised retribution in 2022 against Republicans who crossed him, and in 2024 should he decide to run again, polls show him damaged but still the front-runner among Republicans.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.