WASHINGTON—The dramatic conclusion of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial laid bare deep philosophical rifts between Republicans, as GOP senators splintered not only over the question of Mr. Trump’s guilt, but also the future of their party and Mr. Trump’s role in it.
Seven GOP senators voted to convict the former president of inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6—not enough to find him guilty but, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pointed out, the final tally was the most guilty votes cast by members of a president’s own party in any impeachment trial in American history.
The rest of the Senate Republican conference—43 senators in total—voted to acquit Mr. Trump, but not without some angst, reflecting a party schism that has also fractured the House and will likely play out in primary elections in 2022 and 2024.
“It’s been a tough day,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.), who voted to acquit.
Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said as he left the Capitol: “It’s an uncomfortable vote and time will tell, but…I don’t think there was a good outcome there for anybody.” Mr. Thune also voted to acquit Mr. Trump.
Senate Democrats were unanimous in voting to convict Trump, as House Democrats were in last month’s impeachment vote, but some in the party were left frustrated by the speed of the trial and the lack of witnesses—particularly the hasty agreement Saturday that didn’t result in testimony from Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. “Way to snatch hope,” tweeted Melissa Byrne, a progressive strategist.
Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, defended the decision to forgo witnesses, saying being able to enter Ms. Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record and read it out loud was all that the impeachment managers wanted. He said no matter how many witnesses they called, they would be unable to sway Republicans who argued that it was unconstitutional to try a former president or that Mr. Trump was protected by the First Amendment.
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While some Democrats differed on tactics, the Republican rift was more profound, as GOP senators tried to distance themselves from Mr. Trump while stopping short of a step that would permanently exile the de facto leader of their party—a figure still very popular with their base—from future federal office. If the Senate had mustered 67 votes necessary to convict Mr. Trump, 51 senators in a subsequent vote could have barred him from holding office ever again.
Instead, Senate Minority Leader
took to the Senate floor to try to bury Mr. Trump’s political future and salvage the Republican Party’s brand from the legacy of Jan. 6.
Earlier in the afternoon, Mr. McConnell voted to acquit Mr. Trump. But in a harshly critical speech, the Kentucky Republican made it clear he had cut all ties to the former president—and suggested he might have voted differently had Mr. Trump still been in office.
Mr. McConnell called the mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol a disgrace and laid the blame squarely on Mr. Trump. “They did this because they’d been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth because he was angry he lost an election,” he said. “President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
There is “no question, none,” he said, that Mr. Trump “is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it.”
Mr. McConnell appeared to agree with the argument presented by House managers that the people who stormed the Capitol building believed they were acting on Mr. Trump’s wishes and instructions.
“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 things,” Mr. McConnell said. “Sadly, many politicians sometimes make overheated comments or use metaphors, we saw, that unhinged listeners might take literally. But that was different.…This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories by an outgoing president who seems determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”
By strictly criminal standards, Mr. McConnell said, the president’s speech was probably not incitement. But in the context of impeachment, he said, the Senate might have decided that this was “acceptable shorthand for the reckless actions that preceded the riots.”
He argued, however, that the question is moot because Mr. Trump has left office—a view he said he came to after intense reflection on the text of the Constitution.
The Republican leader could have brought the Senate back early with agreement from the Democratic leader under a 2004 law that authorizes the emergency return of the Senate provided that both lawmakers agree.
Mr. McConnell also chose not to pressure Republican senators to vote one way or another, although in an email to his Republican colleagues Saturday morning, he had revealed that he would vote to acquit, and characterized the verdict as a vote of conscience for lawmakers.
With a tough Senate map on the horizon for Republicans in 2022, Mr. McConnell and other GOP senators face the thorny task of rebuilding a party still dominated by base voters who favor Mr. Trump, while winning back suburban, independent and college-educated voters who fled the party over the past four years, disgusted by Mr. Trump.
Saturday’s Republican divides stretched beyond the Senate. In the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.), a fierce Trump defender, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.), a Trump ally known for promoting conspiracy theories, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), an outspoken Trump critic, all took different tacks on Twitter over the role of Ms. Herrera Beutler and whether her testimony on Mr. Trump’s actions during the riot would be relevant or brave.
As Senate Republicans publicly wrestled with their decisions on impeachment this week, they also grappled with the prospect that Mr. Trump might roar back onto the political scene after being acquitted, newly emboldened.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.) voted to acquit Saturday. But he said it would be harder for him personally to vote for Mr. Trump for president again, given what happened Jan. 6.
“That has got to be part of what weighs on me, what anybody would have to measure,” Mr. Cramer said. “But I can assure you that just as sure as that would measure negatively for me, there’s a whole lot of people who feel the opposite about it. And a lot of them are my constituents.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), who is up for re-election in 2022, told reporters she agonized over her decision to convict Mr. Trump.
“There’s consequences, I guess, with every vote, and this was consequential on many levels, but I cannot allow my vote—the significance of my vote—to be devalued by whether or not I feel that this is helpful to my political ambitions,” she said.
“What I’m taking home is that at the end of the day, right won,” Ms. Murkowski added, referring to Congress’s constitutional obligation to finish certifying Joe Biden’s electoral win after the riot. “And we did it because we had some extraordinary men and women that were willing to stand up and defend and protect, and that was good,” she said.
“I just wish that Donald Trump had been one of them.”
—Eliza Collins and Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.
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Source: WSJ – US News