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Senate acquits Trump for 2nd time, as 7 Republicans join Democrats in guilty vote

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·8-min read

The U.S. Senate voted Saturday to acquit former President Trump on a charge of “incitement of insurrection” in connection with the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, concluding the second impeachment trial of his term in office. A majority of senators found Trump guilty, but the vote fell short of the two-thirds margin required to convict.

A total of 57 Senators voted to convict Trump of the impeachment article brought by the U.S. House of Representatives, with seven Republicans joining all 48 Democrats in the chamber and independent Sens. Bernie Sanders and Angus King. It was the most bipartisan impeachment vote of the five in the nation’s history. Trump claimed in a statement that it was another phase of “the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a blistering speech on the Senate floor just after the vote in which he lashed out at Trump and said he held him directly and uniquely responsible for the riotous insurrection.

“There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And having that belief was 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.”

McConnell went through the defenses mounted by Trump’s attorneys, dismissing each. He expressed agreement with many of the House manager’s arguments.

McConnell also dismissed the Trump attorneys' claim that impeachment was an attempt, as David Schoen put it, “to disenfranchise 74 million-plus American voters” who voted for Trump in the 2020 election.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks after the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks after the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

“That’s an absurd deflection,” McConnell said. “Seventy-four million Americans did not invade the Capitol. Hundreds of rioters did. Seventy-four million Americans did not engineer the campaign of disinformation and rage. ... One person did. Just one.”

But in the end, after “intense reflection,” McConnell said he ended up concluding the Constitution did not allow the Senate to convict a former president. The irony is that McConnell on Jan. 13 rejected the notion of beginning the Senate trial immediately while Trump was still president. His office said the issue was that "the Senate would not be able to reach a 'final verdict' before Donald Trump left office."

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., one of the seven Republicans who voted to convict, addressed this constitutional question directly in a statement.

"This trial is constitutional because the president abused his power while in office, and the House of Representatives impeached him while he was still in office," Sasse said. "If Congress cannot forcefully respond to an intimidation attack on Article I instigated by the head of Article II, our constitutional balance will be permanently tilted. A weak and timid Congress will increasingly submit to an emboldened and empowered presidency. That’s unacceptable."

McConnell was not the only Republican who cast a "not guilty" vote and then issued a statement condemning Trump's actions and holding him responsible for the insurrection.

"The actions and reactions of President Trump were disgraceful, and history will judge him harshly," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said: “My vote to acquit should not be viewed as exoneration for [Trump’s] conduct on January 6, 2021, or in the days and weeks leading up to it. What former President Trump did to undermine faith in our election system and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power is inexcusable."

Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., leaves the chamber as the Senate voted to consider hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., leaves the chamber as the Senate voted to consider hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Saturday’s vote marked the second time Trump was both impeached in the House and then acquitted in the Senate, with the first occurring one year and one week ago.

A month ago, however, Congress had moved ahead with the second impeachment on the assumption that there was a real possibility the Senate would convict Trump and bar him from holding future office. The events of Jan. 6 were unspeakably horrific, and many Republicans openly blamed Trump for sparking the insurrection.

At that time, McConnell signaled he wanted an impeachment and that he was open to voting to convict. McConnell was one of just many Republicans who minced no words in holding Trump directly responsible for the violent and deadly attack that left five people dead, including one police officer, and injured scores of others, including around 150 police.

Trump lied for months to his supporters that the election was stolen, disregarding over 60 court cases that found no evidence of cheating, and summoned his supporters on Jan. 6

But within days, political considerations began to push their way back into the minds of many Republican members of Congress. And it dawned on many of them that Trump and right-wing media organizations that support him still controlled the way many Republican voters view reality. Their conclusion: Many of them would lose their jobs if they voted to hold Trump accountable.

Trump lawyer Bruce Castor referred to this reality on Friday. "Nobody in this Chamber is anxious to have a primary challenge. That is one truism I think I can say with some certainty," Castor said.

And so just a week after the vicious and unprecedented assault on democracy, only 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump, rather than the flood that appeared ready to do so in the hours after Jan. 6, when lawmakers of both parties feared for their lives as the mob ransacked the Capitol.

McConnell, who holds significant sway over other Senate Republicans, began to waffle, and on Jan. 26 he voted that it was unconstitutional for the Senate to hold a trial for a former president.

U.S. Senate votes during former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial. (Reuters Video)
U.S. Senate votes during former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial. (Reuters Video)

Still, other Republicans and the public remained in suspense over what McConnell might do, even if it appeared increasingly unlikely he would vote to convict. And then on Saturday morning, the Kentucky Republican confirmed it: He would vote to acquit, even though he did say it was a “close call.”

For roughly two hours on Saturday morning, it appeared that the trial would extend for more than one day, and possibly for weeks or longer. House managers proposed calling witnesses, and the Senate approved the request by a vote of 55 to 45.

But after it became clear that it would require 60 votes to actually approve the rules for calling witnesses, the managers backed off. Hardline Trump loyalists such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had made it clear they would seek to bring the Senate to a grinding halt and not allow It to do any other business other than the trial, turning it into a partisan circus and blocking any progress on a COVID-19 relief bill.

During closing arguments, Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., gave a stirring speech in which he dismissed the defense of Trump’s attorneys as a collection of “distractions and excuses” and pleaded with Republican senators to put the country’s welfare above their own political interests.

“The consequence of not doing so is just too great,” Neguse said.

He also responded to the barrage of accusations from Trump’s attorneys that the impeachment was motivated by irrational animus for Trump.

“This trial was not born from hatred. Far from it. It is born from love of country,” Neguse said. “It is our desire to maintain it, our desire to see America at its best.”

And he warned the senators that if they did not repudiate Trump and hold him accountable, the horrors of Jan. 6 could be repeated.

Rep. Joe Neguse. (via Reuters Video)
Rep. Joe Neguse. (via Reuters Video)

“The cold hard truth as to what happened on January 6 can happen again. I fear, like many of you do, that the violence that we saw on that terrible day may be just the beginning,” Neguse said. “We have shown you the ongoing risks and the extremist groups that grow more emboldened every day. Senators, this could not be the beginning. It can't be the new normal. It has to be the end, and that decision is in your hands.”

The Republican senators who found Trump guilty were Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Burr and Cassidy were the big surprises. Burr, who is retiring in 2022, voted that the trial was unconstitutional but then voted guilty anyway. Cassidy was the surprise Republican vote in favor of constitutionality, but then earlier this week he was photographed with notes suggesting he was leaning toward a not guilty vote.

The guilty vote was the biggest political risk for Cassidy, Murkowski, Sasse and Romney, who all represent conservative states and have not indicated any intent to resign. But Cassidy and Sasse were just reelected last fall, and will not be up for reelection until 2026.

Cassidy’s statement explaining his vote was just two sentences. “Our Constitution and our country is more important than any one person. I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty,” he said.

Thumbnail Credit: (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

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