Republicans need to convince Trump he cannot win in 2024
Senators used legal arguments in impeachment trial but acquittal was purely political
House impeachment manager Republican Jamie Raskin and other impeachment managers on Saturday after the Senate voted to acquit former president Donald Trump, ending the impeachment trial. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
The outcome of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial was never in doubt. Just over a year after Trump was impeached for the first time, he was once again acquitted in his Senate trial on Saturday.
What did change were the numbers. While a year ago, just one senator voted to convict the president, this time seven members of his own party voted for conviction.
Many would say that the number should have been higher – that Trump’s role in provoking an attack on the US Capitol and refusal to accept the result of a democratically-held election demanded censure. As House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin put it after playing a video of the riot, “If that’s not an impeachable offence then there is no such thing.”
But 43 Republican senators calculated that convicting a former president who received 74 million votes in November’s election was too politically risky. The fact that the accused was no longer in office offered a handy get-out-of-jail card.
Republicans could hide behind a technical argument that the trial itself was unconstitutional because the point of an impeachment trial is to remove a president, despite the prosecution providing examples from history of public officials who stood trial when no longer in office.
It was this argument that Mitch McConnell clung to as he made an extraordinary speech on the Senate floor. Minutes after voting to acquit, the Senate minority leader excoriated Trump. The former president was guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” on January 6th, McConnell intoned.
“There’s no question – none – that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” he said. He rationalised his vote by arguing that the Senate has no power to convict a private citizen.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi was so incensed that she showed up unexpectedly at the House impeachment managers’ press conference after the vote to publicly castigate McConnell, accusing him of “pathetic” behaviour and wanting to have it both ways.
In particular, she clarified that the reason Trump could not face a trial while still president was that McConnell himself had made it clear after the House impeachment vote that he would not hold the trial before Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Some had hoped that McConnell would definitively break with Trump. After all, the senator, who turns 79 this week, just won re-election in his home state of Kentucky so his seat is safe for another six years.
Such political realities no doubt weighed on the minds of senators who will face the voters in the 2022 midterm elections. Thirty-four Senate seats are on the ballot, 20 of them Republican.
Of the seven Republicans who voted to convict there were some surprises. Senator Richard Burr was the first Republican to vote “aye” in an unexpected move. The North Carolina senator has already announced he won’t be seeking re-election in 2022.
Bill Cassidy of Louisiana also showed moral mettle. In a statement after the vote, he said he voted to convict Trump “because he is guilty”, despite receiving a backlash from his local Republican party when he voted with Democrats in a procedural vote earlier in the week.
Although Republicans like McConnell have questions to answer, Democrats did not cover themselves in glory on Saturday.
Minutes after the Senate convened, the chamber descended into chaos, after Raskin announced he wanted a call a witness. It followed new information from a Republican congresswoman about a phone call between Trump and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy during the riot.
But Raskin’s move took not only Republicans but many senators in his own party offguard. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer’s staff were only informed of the decision minutes before proceedings began.
A vote was quickly held on calling witnesses, which passed, only for the Senate to break and frantically try to negotiate a compromise as Democrats realised that Republicans would demand calling their own witnesses. The result was that Democrats backtracked on their decision – and the vote they had just taken – and settled for reading the congresswoman’s statement into the record.
Further, during closing arguments, proceedings had to be halted twice when Republicans objected to the House impeachment managers introducing new evidence in breach of the rules.
These procedural own goals, however, will be just a footnote in history when the impeachment trial of Donald Trump is remembered.
Despite his acquittal, Trump has the ignominious honour of being the only president to be impeached twice, and the latest trial has put the events of January 6th on the public record for posterity. There is no doubt he has been damaged by the events that marred the final weeks of his presidency, as evidenced by former UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s rebuke of the former president last week.
In a statement issued as the Senate vote was announced, Trump hinted at a comeback. “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to make America great again has only just begun,” he said.
But having just lost an election by more than 7 million votes, it is difficult to see how Trump could revive his political career enough to win in 2024. Republicans are likely to focus on securing Trump’s help in ensuring his base gets behind a suitable candidate ahead of the next election, rather than him considering a run himself.
Convincing him that he may not win might be the best strategy in discouraging an individual whose greatest fear is losing.