Republican divisions over Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial came into clearer focus on Sunday, as the former president spent his first weekend out of office plotting revenge against those he says betrayed him.
Stewing over election defeat by Joe Biden, four days after leaving the White House, Trump continued to drop hints of creating a new party, a threat some saw as a gambit to keep wavering senators in line ahead of the opening of his trial, in the week after 8 February.
Democrats will send the single article of impeachment to the Senate for a reading on Monday evening. It alleges incitement of insurrection, regarding the 6 January riot at the US Capitol that left five dead, including a police officer.
Trump spent the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, splitting rounds of golf with discussions about maintaining relevance and influence and how to unseat Republicans deemed to have crossed him, the Washington Post reported.
Trump, the Post said, had said the threat of starting a Maga (Make America Great Again) or Patriot party, gave him leverage to prevent senators voting to convict, which could lead to him being prevented from seeking office again.
Later on Sunday, the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman cited sources “familiar with his thinking” when she said Trump was backing off his threat to create a new party, after it was “gently pointed out to him” that “threatening a third party while simultaneously threatening primaries makes no sense”.
We already have a flaming fire in this country and it’s like taking gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire
Nonetheless, those in Trump’s crosshairs include Liz Cheney, the No3 House Republican, Georgia governor Brian Kemp and others who declined to embrace false claims of election fraud or accused him of inciting the Capitol riot.
Other senior Republicans clashed on Sunday over Trump’s trial and the party’s future. Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, former presidential candidate and fierce Trump critic who was the only Republican to vote for impeachment at his first trial last year, said the former president had exhibited a “continuous pattern” of trying to corrupt elections.
“He fired up a crowd, encouraging them to march on the Capitol at the time that the Congress was carrying out its constitutional responsibility to certify the election,” Romney told CNN’s State of the Union. “These allegations are very serious. They haven’t been defended yet by the president. He deserves a chance to have that heard but it’s important for us to go through the normal justice process and for there to be resolution.”
Romney said it was constitutional to hold a trial for a president who has left office.
“I believe that what is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offence. If not, what is?”
Romney, however, said he did not support action against Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, senators who supported Trump’s claims of a rigged election and objected to results.
“I think history will provide a measure of judgment with regard to those that continue to spread the lie that the [former] president began with, as well as the voters in our respective communities,” he said. “I don’t think the Senate needs to take action.”
Other Republicans, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, are expected to vote to convict. But the party is deeply fractured. For a conviction, 17 Republicans would need to vote with the 50 Democrats. It is unclear if that number can be reached, despite assertions from minority leader Mitch McConnell that the mob “was fed lies” by Trump.
Haberman reported that Trump had “started to believe there are fewer votes to convict than there would have been if the vote had been held almost immediately after 6 January”.
Marco Rubio of Florida said he thought the trial was “stupid and counterproductive”.
“We already have a flaming fire in this country and it’s like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire,” he told Fox News Sunday.
“I look back in time, for example Richard Nixon, who had clearly committed crimes and wrongdoing. In hindsight I think we would all agree that President Ford’s pardon was important for the country to be able to move forward. I think this is going to be really bad for the country, it’s just going to stir it up even more and make it even harder to get things done.”
John Cornyn of Texas threatened retaliation, tweeting: “If it is a good idea to impeach and try former presidents, what about former Democratic presidents when Republicans get the majority in 2022? Think about it and let’s do what is best for the country.”
Mike Rounds, of South Dakota, said he believed the impeachment was unconstitutional, telling NBC’s Meet the Press: “[The US constitution] specifically pointed out that you can impeach the president and it does not indicate that you can impeach someone who is not in office. So I think it’s a moot point.
“But for right now there are other things we’d rather be working on. The Biden administration would love more of their cabinet in place and there’s a number of Republicans that feel the same way. We should allow this president the opportunity to form his cabinet and get that in place as quickly as possible.”
Republican unity appears increasingly rare. On Saturday, the Arizona Republican party voted to censure Cindy McCain, the widow of the former senator and presidential candidate John McCain, and two other prominent party members who have crossed Trump.
The actions drew swift praise from the former president, who backed Kelli Ward, the firebrand state party chair who was the architect of the censure, and who recently won a narrow re-election.
Trump, the Post reported, called Ward to offer his “complete and total endorsement”.