Former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate on Saturday as his second impeachment trial came to a conclusion.
Seven Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting to convict Trump, who was charged with having incited an insurrection by encouraging rioters to mob the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Despite the Republican defections, the final vote of 57-43 was insufficient to meet the two-thirds majority required to convict Trump and bar him from holding federal office in the future.
Still, the number of Republicans who broke ranks is significant—when the Senate voted on Trump’s first impeachment in January 2020, Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) was the lone Republican to vote for conviction. This time, Romney was joined by Sens. Richard Burr (R–N.C.), Bill Cassidy (R–La.), Susan Collins (R–Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska), Ben Sasse (R–Neb.), and Pat Toomey (R–Pa.)
Those senators, and the 10 Republican members of the House of Representatives who voted to impeach Trump last month, clearly demonstrate the stark divide facing the party as it seeks a post-Trump identity.
The outcome of Trump’s trial was never in much serious doubt, but Saturday did provide some late drama when five Republicans unexpectedly sided with Democrats in voting to allow witnesses to testify at the trial. The vote temporarily opened the door to a much longer impeachment trial—one that likely would have included even more damning evidence of Trump’s role in fomenting the January 6th chaos. But shortly after the vote, Senate Democrats announced that they would not call witnesses after all, in an apparent attempt to bring the trial to a more speedy conclusion so the Senate can turn its attention to other matters.
That came on the heels of an explosive revelation on Friday night, when Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R–Wash.) publicly disclosed that Trump had rebuked an effort by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) to get the president to call off the rioters on January 6. According to Herrera Beutler, McCarthy said that Trump responded by saying that “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
— Jaime Herrera Beutler (@HerreraBeutler) February 13, 2021
Herrera Beutler’s account—along with other details of Trump’s reaction to the events of January 6th as they were still unfolding—made a powerful case for the former president’s conviction. As Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote earlier this week, Trump’s refusal to call in the National Guard, his tweets and video message to the rioters on that day, and his refusal to unambiguously condemn what happened should have been enough to impeach and bar him from office even if he had no role in inciting the event.
Trump’s defense team seemed to know there was little hope of clearing their client of the responsibility for the Capitol riot. Instead, they focused their defense on a weak First Amendment argument that completely ignored the main issue of the trial: whether Trump violated his oath of office by inciting the violence. No one seriously debates that the president has a right to say whatever he pleases, but that right does not absolve anyone of the consequences of their actions.
The other defense, and ultimately the one that probably kept more Republicans from defecting and voting to convict, was rooted in the idea that the Senate did not have the constitutional authority to convict a president who has already left office. That’s also a poor defense—one that effectively leaves Congress with no recourse against a chief executive who breaks the law on his way out the door—but it was one that most Republican senators seemed to buy, or at least be willing to hide behind.
Now that the impeachment trial is over, the Trump era has come to a close. Whether the reality-show-star-turned-first-president-to-be-impeached-twice has a future in American politics, however, sadly remains an open question—thanks to a Republican Party that seems dominated by fealty to little else besides Trump’s whims.