WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial ended Saturday with acquittal on a 57-43 vote, with seven Republicans and all Democrats voting that the former president incited insurrection.
Though short of the two-thirds needed to convict, it was the widest and most bipartisan vote for conviction in any of the four presidential trials in U.S. history.
Democrats insisted the trial would leave an indelible mark on Trump’s legacy. The 45th president now has the distinction of being the only U.S. president impeached and acquitted twice.
“He has been discredited in the eyes of the American people and in the judgment of history,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
The Republicans who voted to convict were Sens. Richard 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 Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he based his vote to acquit on the belief that a former president is not subject to impeachment, but in a remarkable floor speech after the verdict, he embraced the substantive allegations and said his vote would likely have been different if Trump were still in office.
“President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it,” he said, accusing Trump of peddling a “wild myth” that he had won the election and engaging in “unconscionable” behavior before and during the Jan. 6 attack.
“The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless thing,” he said,
That neatly summed up the prosecution case.
“None of this would have happened without the president,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead House manager, told senators sitting in judgment in a chamber that had been overrun by pro-Trump militants. “This country and the world know who Donald Trump is. This trial is about who we are. This is about whether our country demands a peaceful, nonviolent transfer of power.”
Trump, who refused to testify at the trial, expressed defiance from his South Florida resort afterward.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” he said.
He complained that Democrats had gotten “a free pass to denigrate the rule of law, defame law enforcement, cheer mobs … and persecute, blacklist, cancel and suppress” anyone they disagree with, while he had to endure “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”
Throughout the trial, House managers faced dim prospects of prying loose the 17 Republicans needed to convict Trump for inciting insurrection, by unleashing a violent mob in order to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory.
Defense lawyer Michael van der Veen blamed the Jan. 6 attack on “fringe left and right groups,” repeating a favorite Trump claim, debunked by the FBI and other authorities, that Antifa and other leftists infiltrated the mob and acted as provocateurs.
He argued that if Trump’s pre-riot claims about election fraud and exhortations to “fight” to protect his presidency truly posed a threat of violence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Washington’s mayor and others would have ordered a large military and police presence at the Capitol before the attack.
“He was not trying to foment an insurrection,” van der Veen said. “At no point did you hear anything that could ever possibly be construed as Mr. Trump encouraging or sanctioning insurrection … . Mr. Trump is innocent of the charges against him.”
The House impeached Trump one week after the riot, and two weeks before his term expired. For Democrats, part of the goal was to draw a bright line between acceptable and intolerable presidential conduct.
Another was to put Republicans on the spot.
“Look at what Republicans have been forced to defend. Look at what Republicans have chosen to forgive … . The most despicable act that any president has ever committed, and the majority of Republicans cannot summon the courage or the morality to condemn it,” Schumer said on the Senate floor moments after the verdict. “Remember how close our democracy came to ruin.”
Few Republicans had shown any inclination to hold Trump accountable for the insurrection. Six voted with Democrats on Tuesday to set aside an objection that an ex-president is no longer subject to their jurisdiction.
House managers pressed ahead, appealing to a sense of shame and patriotic duty in hopes of overcoming party loyalty and fears of Trump’s wrath and backlash from his ardent base. But even in defeat, Trump continues to cast a long shadow over the GOP.
“We must recognize and exorcise these crimes against our nation,” Raskin told the Senate in closing arguments, asking whether Trump’s words and actions were really “totally appropriate,” as he claimed, or “the greatest betrayal of the presidential oath of office in the history of our country.”
“He tried to overturn the will of the people,” he said. “He named the date, he named the time and he brought them here, and now he must pay the price.”
The prosecution built its case not just on Trump’s incendiary remarks to an angry, combustible crowd just before the riot but on months of falsehoods he peddled, warning that the election would be stolen and claiming afterward that it was, in fact, stolen.
Just before the attack, Trump told supporters that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
On Friday night, Rep. Jaime Herrera Butler of Washington, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment, revealed a damning conversation relayed to her by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy pleaded with Trump to send help during the siege, to which he responded: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
McConnell noted that with the riot underway, “even with police officers bleeding and broken glass covering the Capitol floor,” Trump kept repeating lies about the election.
One person provoked the riot, he said. “Just one.”
“Mitch McConnell clearly feels that Donald Trump remains a huge problem for the Republican Party even if he has been disgraced in the eyes of the country,” Raskin said afterward.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi blasted McConnell for only now affirming the case against Trump, after refusing to bring the Senate back into session before Jan. 20, when Republicans lost control of the Senate, in order to start a trial while Trump was still president.
Senators arrived at the Capitol in a freezing drizzle on Saturday expecting to move straight to closing arguments. They ended up voting 55-45 to upend a deal struck by party leaders to forgo witnesses after the House managers asked for testimony from Herrera Butler.
As the sides haggled on how to proceed, GOP Sen. Ted Cruz called the prospect of witnesses a “Pandora’s box” that Democrats would regret opening and attributed the demand to desperation and political pressure.
“Leftist Twitter got really upset last night that they weren’t calling witnesses,” he said. “They haven’t proven their case.”
With senators in both parties eager to get the ordeal behind them, a deal was struck. Raskin read the congresswoman’s statement into the record and the trial moved to closing arguments.
The McCarthy call was one of many pleas from besieged lawmakers via social media and TV that Trump ignored, even as he continued to heckle Vice President Mike Pence via Twitter, and called at least two GOP senators to urge them to block certification of President Joe Biden’s election.
“Did he quickly try to get in touch with or denounce the Proud Boys, the Oathkeepers, the Save America rally organizers and everyone on the extreme right and tell them that this was not what he had in mind? It’s a big mistake. Call it off?” Raskin asked. “No. He delighted in it. He reveled in it. He exalted in it. He could not understand why the people around him did not share his delight.”
“He further incited them while failing to defend us. If that is not a high crime and misdemeanor, then what is?” he said.
Trump refused to testify, and Cruz agreed that he shouldn’t have to.
“There is a long tradition in our trials that is reflected in the Bill of Rights that any individual is not required to testify against themselves, to testify at their own trial I don’t think we should attempt to force the president to testify in his own impeachment trial,” he said.
Trump’s lawyers spent just three hours Friday defending his conduct.
Echoing one of Trump’s favorite epithets, they called the impeachment a “politically motivated witch hunt” and rejected as “a preposterous and monstrous lie” the allegation that a “law and order president” could possibly have condoned or encouraged any violence, let alone the Jan. 6 assault on Congress.
House managers offered mounds of evidence showing a pattern of behavior by Trump to glorify political violence against his adversaries, from cheering a road rage incident in Texas involving his supporters and a Biden campaign bus to offering to pay legal fees for rallygoers who punched protesters.
Just before the attack, Trump told supporters that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
“Many of us may have tuned out his rallies,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa. “I did not know the extent that his followers were listening, were hanging on his every word.”
McConnell announced his intention to vote for acquittal shortly before Saturday morning’s session began. His wife, Elaine Chao, was one of the Trump Cabinet members who resigned in protest after the riot.
More than 60 state and federal courts threw out Trump’s allegations of fraud and wrongdoing, with some judges, including some appointed by Trump himself, effectively laughing his claims out of court as utterly baseless and ludicrous.
But an impeachment is not scored on points. Unlike a criminal or civil trial, in which juries are expected to base a verdict on reasonable doubt or a preponderance evidence, impeachment is an inherently political exercise.
As Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., reminded senators, the mechanism is meant to protect the Constitution and the republic, rather than to punish wrongdoing. “This isn’t a criminal trial,” he said.
He noted that even House members aren’t allowed on the Senate floor, where he and the other prosecutors made their case, making the sight of marauders rifling through senators’ hastily abandoned desks all the more shocking.
Cruz, Graham and Sen. Mike Lee met several times in a side room with his defense team during the trial, providing legal and strategic advice.
Cruz rejected criticism that such consultations were inappropriate, as they would be in an ordinary courtroom. So did Trump’s lawyers, even as they offered a contradictory claim that the Senate trial lacked the sort of “due process” that a defendant would enjoy in a court of law.
At one point on Saturday, van der Veen insisted that if witnesses were allowed, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have to appear at his law office in Philadelphia because “that’s the way it work, folks.”
The guffaws from senators on both sides left him flustered.
Van der Veen told senators they can vote to acquit on any of several grounds: belief that an ex-president isn’t subject to the Senate jurisdiction, even though the Senate ruled against that claim 55-45 on Tuesday; that the impeachment was unfair; and that whatever Trump said was protected by his free speech rights.
That sidestepped the substance of the House case — that Trump stoked violence for months by lying about the election, lit the fuse the day of the riot, and proved his ill intent by refusing to call off his supporters or send troops to protect the Capitol, Congress and his own vice president from the mob.
The prosecution relied on the long record of outlandish, anti-democratic rhetoric by Trump, using clip after clip showing his drumbeat of lies about the election and his glorification of political violence.
The day of the riot: “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”
The day after Election Day: “They’re trying to steal an election.”
More than a month earlier: “It’s a rigged election — it’s the only way we’re going to lose.”
They showed a clip of former Dallas tea party activist Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign surrogate, warming up the pre-riot crowd. “They haven’t seen a resistance until they have a seen a patriot fight for their country,” she said.
“This conduct took time,” House manager Dean.