Donald Trump has been acquitted by the Senate in his second impeachment trial for his role in the 6 January attack on the US Capitol – a verdict that underscores the sway America’s 45th president still holds over the Republican party even after leaving office.
After just five days of debate in the chamber that was the scene of last month’s invasion, a divided Senate fell 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to convict high crimes and misdemeanors. A conviction would have allowed the Senate to vote to disqualify him from holding future office.
Seven Republicans joined every Democrat to declare Trump guilty on the charge of “incitement of insurrection” after his months-long quest to overturn his defeat by Joe Biden and its deadly conclusion on 6 January, when Congress met to formalize the election results.
The 57-43 vote was most bipartisan support for conviction ever in a presidential impeachment trial. The result, which was never in doubt, reflected both the still raw anger of senators over Trump’s conduct as his supporters stormed the Capitol last month – and the vice-like grip the defeated president still holds over his party.
Among the Republicans who broke ranks were 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.
Trump was the first US president to be impeached twice and is now the first president to be twice acquitted. If convicted, the Senate could have voted to bar him from holding office in the future, but this decision paves the way – should Trump want to run again – for another tilt at the White House in 2024.
Trump’s acquittal came after the nine Democratic House managers, led by Jamie Raskin, warned gravely that Trump continued to pose a threat to the nation and democracy itself.
“If this is not a high crime and misdemeanor against the United States of America then nothing is,” Raskin said, pleading with senators in the final moments before they rendered their judgments as jurors and witnesses. “President Trump must be convicted, for the safety and democracy of our people.”
Moments after the verdict was delivered, a defiant Trump thanked Republicans who stood by him and decried what he called “yet another phase of the greatest witch-hunt in the history of our country”.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Trump said in a statement that expressed no remorse and made no mention of the violence that unfolded in his name.
Several senators, including their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, grounded their decisions to acquit Trump in a legal argument, advanced by his attorneys and rejected by a majority of the Senate as well as leading constitutional scholars, that the chamber did not have the authority to try a former president.
In a floor speech after the vote, McConnell said Trump committed a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” by refusing to intervene as his supporters carried out a violent insurrection at the Capitol.
“There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically, and morally, responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell said. But he concluded that the Senate was never meant to serve as a “moral tribunal” and suggested that Trump could still face criminal prosecution.
“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he’s in office,” McConnell said. “He didn’t get away with anything yet.”
At a news conference after the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced as “cowardly” those who voted to acquit Trump on procedural grounds and said she would refuse to entertain their calls for a censure.
“We censure people for using stationery for the wrong purpose,” she said, her voice rising in indignation. “We don’t censure people for inciting insurrection.”
The House impeached Trump in his final days in office, on one charge of “incitement of insurrection” of the siege on the US Capitol. He invited supporters to Washington on the day electoral college votes were being counted, told them to “fight like hell” and encouraged them to go to the US Capitol, Democrats charged.
Once the attack on the Capitol turned deadly, placing Vice-President Mike Pence, members of Congress and Capitol Hill employees in danger, Trump violated his oath of office by failing to defend the US government against an attack, the charging documents alleged.
The attack came after Trump spent weeks trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Five people died as a direct result of the assault, including a police officer.
Democrats spent days building a meticulous case against Trump that even earned praise among conservative Republicans. Using extensive footage from the Capitol attack, prosecutors argued that Trump deliberately fomented violence among his supporters, who believed they were acting on his instructions.
The Capitol siege was not just a result of the speech Trump gave on 6 January, they argued, but was encouragement built up over years of his sanctioning violence among his supporters.
If this is not a high crime and misdemeanor against the United States of America then nothing is
During the 2016 campaign, they noted, Trump explicitly encouraged supporters at his rallies to rough up protesters. Last year, he cheered-on rioters as they raided the Michigan statehouse in a “dress rehearsal” for the attack on the US Capitol, Democrats said.
In a chamber protesters breached, the Democrats’ presentation was emotional, vivid and visceral. The striking evidence presented was a notable contrast to Trump’s first impeachment trial, which was built around documents and testimony regarding his effort to pressure Ukrainian officials to help him politically.
After two days of arguments from Democrats, Trump’s lawyers used just a fraction of the 16 hours allocated for their case. They used a smattering of approaches, arguing Trump could not be tried because he had already left office and that his speech did not amount to an incitement of violence and was protected by the first amendment.
During their short presentation on Friday, Trump’s lawyers argued that he was using the same kind of rhetoric politicians frequently use and said the trial was a “political witch hunt” and that Trump a victim of “constitutional cancel culture”.
Those arguments largely seemed to be an effort to distort the case against Trump and obscure the unique context under which he encouraged supporters to disrupt the activities of the US government as it facilitated the peaceful transfer of power.
The swift conclusion of the trial on Saturday was briefly thrown into doubt after House managers unexpectedly moved to call witnesses, in an effort to shed light on Trump’s state of mind during the Capitol siege. The Democratic managers were not expected to call witnesses, but changed their minds after a new account by Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
In a statement on the eve of the vote, Herrera Beutler said Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, told her he called Trump after the breach of the Capitol on 6 January to beg him to tell his supporters to stand down – and that Trump sided with the rioters.
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump told McCarthy on the call, according to Herrera Beutler’s recollection, which she has shared repeatedly. On Friday, she urged Republicans to share what they knew about Trump’s decision-making during the riot, before it was too late.
After a frantic bout of uncertainty in which it appeared proceedings might take several more weeks, the managers struck a deal with Trump’s lawyers to enter Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record and drop their push to call witnesses.
Embracing Trump’s combative and fact-bending approach, his lawyers declared him “innocent of the charges against him” and denounced the trial as a “final, desperate attempt” by Democrats to disqualify their most despised opponent from public office.
“You do not have to indulge the impeachment lust, the dishonesty and the hypocrisy,” Michael van der Veen, one of Trump’s lawyers, told senators.
By turn, the Democratic managers summoned the weight of history, reminding senators of consequential votes taken by their forebears in the same chamber to abolish slavery, pass the Civil Rights Act and impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa.
“There are moments that transcend party politics and that require us to put country above our party because the consequences of not doing so are just too great,” said one of the managers, Joe Neguse. “Senators, this is one of those moments.”