(CNN)Former President Donald Trump’s second acquittal by the US Senate proved the enduring power he holds over the Republican Party, with the results Saturday setting the dangerous precedent that even an autocratic leader who violates his oath of office can escape punishment if he bullies enough senators into standing by him.
His win came after a feeble defense by his lawyers that amounted to little more than gaslighting and a presentation of falsehoods. And it showed the fundamental power imbalance that is part of Trump’s legacy in Washington. For four years, he abused the office of the presidency with impunity and made the founders’ insistence on co-equal branches of government look like a farce.
But Trump will also go down in history as a disgraced figure who escaped conviction on a technicality after a trial that undeniably proved that he endangered his own vice president, lawmakers in both parties, and scores of police officers as he sought to overturn the election results.
Seven Republicans joined 50 Democrats to convict him — falling short of the 67 guilty votes needed — but that was still six more senators than voted to convict him in 2020. Ten House Republicans voted to impeach him in January, including Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was prepared to testify against Trump when managers initially said Saturday they’d call for witnesses after CNN on Friday night revealed new details of a heated phone call between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy during the insurrection.
Many Republican senators were clearly shaken bythe voluminous video evidence presented by Democratic House impeachment managers last week that showed how the former President spooled lies about the November election to his followers for months, then inflamed the anger of a mob to the point where they stormed the Capitol on January 6, violently beating police officers as they claimed to be carrying out Trump’s instructions to stop the certification ofthe electoral votes.
Clearly still afraid of the electoral consequences they would face if they crossed the former President, many senators who voted for acquittal pinned their votes on the weak procedural argument that they lacked authority to convict under the Constitution since Trump has already left office. (The vast majority of constitutional scholars disagreed with that premise and the Senate had already voted earlier in the week that the trial was constitutional).
Trump played the victim, as usual, in his statement after the vote, claiming the impeachment trial was “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country” and that “no president has ever gone through anything like it.”
Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, a potential presidential contender who hasn’t been afraid to call out the former President, said Sunday he was proud of the Republicans who voted against Trump and said he would have done the same.” It’s not easy to go against your party and the base of your party and the former President …
it’s hard to do the right thing sometimes,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”” I think the final chapter of Donald Trump and where the Republican Party goes hasn’t been written yet, and I think we’re going to have a real battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the next couple of years,” Hogan said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — clearly looking to somehow wrest his party from Trump’s control despite the fact that polls show Trump still enjoys the support of a majority of Republicans — essentially affirmed the House impeachment managers’ case Saturday in a remarkable speech that was panned by Democrats as the epitome of hypocrisy given that the Kentucky Republican had just voted to acquit Trump.
Signaling the tonal shift occurring in some corners of the Republican Party, McConnell said Trump could face criminal prosecution for the events surrounding January 6 and stated that he was “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the violence. (He claimed the Senate was “not invited to act as the nation’s overarching moral tribunal.”)Sen.
John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told CNN’s Ted Barrett that he voted to acquit Trump because it was a “jurisdictional issue” and called it “an uncomfortable vote.” “I don’t think there was a good outcome for anybody,” the South Dakota Republican said.
McConnell hasn’t been out leading the charge against Trump’s election lies. He waited until mid-December to recognize Joe Biden as President. But on Saturday, he said the events of January 6 were a “foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet earth.”
Biden cited McConnell’s speech in a statement Saturday night, playing up the bipartisan nature of the vote — adding that while it did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge against Trump “is not in dispute.”
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