While former President Donald Trump has been acquitted yet again in his second impeachment trial, seven Republican senators voted to convict him, making the trial outcome the most bipartisan in history.
A total of 57 senators ended up voting to convict Trump of inciting the insurrection that took place at the US Capitol on January 6, including seven Republicans: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey.
Many of these lawmakers are considered moderates, and Toomey is one of several GOP lawmakers set to retire after this term. Their votes — along with all 50 of the Democratic caucus — were ultimately not enough to convict the former president; an impeachment conviction requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate, or 67 votes.
Although only a handful of Republicans voted to find Trump guilty, this number is still significant: Previously, Romney was the only senator in US history to vote to convict a president of the same party, having found Trump guilty of one of two articles of impeachment during his first impeachment trial last year. Romney’s vote Saturday — along with those of the other Republicans this time around — underscores how a fraction of the party is open to distancing themselves from the former president, while the majority still struggle with this decision.
“The president bears responsibility for these tragic events,” Sen. Richard Burr said in a statement. “The evidence is compelling that President Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection against a coequal branch of government and that the charge rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the senators who voted to acquit Trump, a decision he announced to his conference on Saturday. There were previously questions about how McConnell would vote because he had signaled that he had yet to make up his mind, and considered Trump’s actions to be an impeachable offense.
McConnell’s position is a hugely influential one and likely gave cover to other members of his conference looking to acquit. In his statement, he cited the Senate’s lack of jurisdiction over impeachment proceedings for a former president as the reason for his vote — an issue on which many legal scholars disagree with him, and one that could have been avoided had he scheduled the trial earlier.
Most Republicans’ willingness to stick by Trump even as he’s stoked violence while contesting the election results suggests that they still see a future in aligning themselves with the former president. For some, the threat of blowback from Trump’s base of voters and a potential primary challenge could have been a key deterrent: According to a recent Vox/Data for Progress poll, 56 percent of Republicans said they were much less likely to vote for a candidate who finds Trump guilty, and 13 percent said they were somewhat less likely to do so.
The Republicans who broke with Trump, however, appeared to send a message both about the severity of his actions — and what some segments of the party still stand for.
Republicans who voted to acquit Trump used questions of constitutionality as a cover
Following the vote, McConnell gave a scathing speech condemning Trump’s lies about election fraud as well as his actions on January 6, only moments after he supported acquittal.
That speech was emblematic of how many Republican senators approached the impeachment vote: Although GOP lawmakers were critical of the attack on January 6, they used a process argument about constitutionality in order to evade confronting Trump on his actual actions.
Effectively, because Trump is no longer in office, Republicans say the Senate doesn’t have jurisdiction to convict him of the article of impeachment. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser explained, there’s some debate over that, but most legal scholars maintain that it is constitutional for the Senate to try a former president.
“If President Trump were still in office, I would have carefully considered whether the House managers proved their specific charge,” McConnell said. McConnell, however, played an integral role in delaying the start of the trial until after Trump was no longer president.
His statement on Saturday was simply a continuation of how Republicans had previously approached Trump’s presidency: There’s been an overwhelming hesitation to hold him accountable while he was in office, and that still appears to be the case for many lawmakers.
The vote echoed a longstanding dynamic that’s poised to continue
For years, Senate Republicans worked with Trump to pass tax legislation and appoint federal judges, and stayed silent during problematic moments in his presidency.
Forty-three Republicans ended up backing him yet again, indicating that while the party is somewhat split, the bulk of GOP lawmakers are still aligning themselves with him.
According to a Vox/DFP survey, there is a similar divide among likely Republican voters: 12 percent of Republicans would have backed his conviction, while 85 percent opposed it.
Trump’s support from the Republican base is likely a factor behind some lawmakers’ decisions: If they were to go against him, it’s possible they’d face a serious electoral challenge in 2022 or 2024.
Beyond showing just how closely Republicans are still tied to Trump, the vote also sent another major message about the party, revealing how open the majority of GOP lawmakers are to condoning an attack on the democratic process itself.