Senate Republicans declined to convict Donald Trump on Saturday for his role in his supporters’ deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, an expected outcome for an impeachment trial that could alter congressional politics, harm Congress’ power to rein in a president and potentially enable more political violence.
The 57-43 vote, in the very chamber that most senators fled to hide only minutes before members of the violent mob sat on the rostrum and rifled through paperwork just over a month earlier, at its most basic, means the former president is not barred from another run at the presidency.
House managers — who argued that Trump spent weeks inciting anger among his supporters with false claims of a stolen election, summoned the mob to Washington and sent them to the Capitol building during a joint session of Congress to finalize the presidential election — needed 17 votes from Republicans to secure the conviction.
In the end, just seven Republicans voted to convict their party’s de facto leader who is still popular among their voters. Others, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said they based their votes on procedural grounds — that the Senate did not have jurisdiction to convict a president who was no longer in office — and not as a judgment of Trump’s behavior.
That jurisdictional argument “provided a big loophole for a lot of senators to take that political out that they’re looking for, just to make it easier on themselves, avoid a primary,” Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said.
But the Senate trial opened rifts in the Republican caucus that could leave lasting scars, with six members joining Democrats to reject that procedural argument and allow the trial to move forward at all.
And Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin did not constrain his frustration with Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah on the floor after a Saturday vote to allow deposing witnesses, pointing a finger, raising his voice and reportedly saying, “blame you” after that vote.
Although Democrats had the support of Romney and four other Republicans in a bipartisan coalition that could have backed efforts to get more information about Trump’s role in the attack, they ultimately folded without so much as a deposition.
“For a second it looked like the Senate was going to reaffirm its place as a transformative, rather than a transactional, body,” Huder said. “But refusing witnesses will again look like these decisions are political rather than deliberative, reinforcing perceptions that politics is ‘rigged.’ It’s a shame because that brief flashback offered a chance to legitimate the process.”
In the end, the Senate retreated mostly to partisan sides when it came to wielding a congressional check on the office of the president, with Republican presidential hopefuls showing no interest in voting against the former president who remains highly popular with their base.
Some Republicans, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who had used the power of his office to further Trump’s claims that the election had been stolen in an attempt to stop the counting of certified votes from several states, even met with Trump’s defense team during the trial to talk strategy.
The Republicans who voted to convict Trump were Richard M. 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 Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Sasse, in a news release, said an impeachment trial is a public declaration about what behavior a president’s oath of office demands in the future. He said he voted to convict Trump because Congress “cannot lower our standards on such a grave matter, simply because it is politically convenient.”
“But here’s the sad reality: If we were talking about a Democratic president, most Republicans and most Democrats would simply swap sides,” Sasse said. “Tribalism is a hell of a drug, but our oath to the Constitution means we’re constrained to the facts.”
The Senate’s actions cut against congressional power of impeachment given to Congress by the nation's founders as a critical tool to preserve our liberties and hold the executive and judiciary in check, said Gregg Nunziata, a former staffer for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and the Senate Republican Policy Committee under then-chairman South Dakota Republican John Thune.
“If senators cannot be moved to call witnesses on a matter this grave, the impeachment power is a shadow of itself,” Nunziata said. “If most senators can be reliably expected to acquit any president of their own party, even in connection with the sacking of Congress itself, the impeachment power is nearly a dead letter.”
Rubio tweeted Friday that if the Senate set a precedent of conviction of a former official such as Hillary Clinton, it will “be just a matter of time before a future House, under partisan pressure to “Lock Her Up”, will impeach & the Senate forced to try other former officials.”
Princeton University politics professor Keith Whittington, who has dubbed an impeachment trial “congressional oversight on steroids,” responded to Rubio that acquittal could also set a dangerous precedent.
“Surely nothing bad could come from setting the precedent that the president’s party will rally around him in Congress if he tries to steal an election and encourages goons to storm the Capitol,” Whittington wrote.
House managers warned senators about what might happen if they don’t vote to convict Trump on what they called “overwhelming” evidence that Trump not only encouraged political violence from right-wing extremist groups, but did not do anything to stop the attack that threatened members of Congress and Pence.
“If that's not ground for conviction, if that's not a high crime and misdemeanor against the republic and the United States of America, then nothing is,” lead manager Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said Saturday. “President Trump must be convicted for the safety and security of our democracy and our people.”
On the other hand, University of Florida law professor Neil H. Buchanan doubts that the outcome of the trial will set much of a precedent for future impeachments.
“In response to any possible impeachment talk, that future president might well say, ‘Hey, at least I didn’t incite an insurrection, so get off my back,’ but that in no way guarantees that he or she would be let off the hook by a future Congress,” Buchanan wrote on Friday.
And Buchanan said he can’t see how the outcome is going to change the hyper-political nature of impeachments in the future either way. “Every impeachment will be different, and any appeals to precedent and history will be window dressing, every time,” Buchanan wrote.
A lot of the trial was directed at the broader public, “so a lot of its effect will also be determined by whether and how it shifts public opinion,” said Josh Chafetz, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who wrote a book about legislative authority and separation of powers.
Regarding the seven Republican votes to convict, “even though that would result in an acquittal, it would send a powerful message both of bipartisan condemnation and of the current state of the GOP,” Chafetz said.
One of the biggest unknowns is what will happen with Trump and his supporters, and his sway over Republican politics.
“And not only do we not know what will happen in general, but we do not even know how to predict whether a Senate conviction will help him with his base or cause them to wander away,” Buchanan wrote.
Raskin, in his closing argument, reminded senators that their personal reputations would be on the line as well as their political reputations.
“Whatever you came to Washington to do, to work on from defense to agriculture to energy to aerospace to health care, this is almost certainly, how you will be remembered by history,” Raskin said.
“That really might not be fair, but none of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now,” Raskin said. “Our reputations and our legacy will be inextricably intertwined with what we do here.”