WASHINGTON – Former United States president Donald Trump escaped being convicted of inciting his supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan 6, despite a majority of Senate members condemning his role in provoking the attempted coup.
The 57-43 vote to convict failed to reach the two-thirds threshold needed, but was significantly bipartisan, with seven Republican senators siding with Democrats and independents. It was a marked difference from Mr Trump’s first impeachment trial, when only one Republican voted to convict.
Said President Joe Biden: “While the final vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge is not in dispute.”
“This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended,” he said in a statement, calling on Americans to stand against extremism, defend the truth and defeat the lies.
For Republicans, the trial laid bare their dilemma of how to signal their disapproval of Mr Trump’s egregious conduct without angering his supporters whose votes they need to secure their political futures.
They are also publicly grappling over the extent to which he is the future of the party, with some senators eager to move past Mr Trump – and signalling so in their condemnation of him – but others continuing to defend him.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell attempted to thread the needle, voting to acquit then giving a blistering speech that accused Mr Trump of “a disgraceful dereliction of duty” and “unconscionable behaviour”.
The mob attacked the Capitol “because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth – because he was angry he’d lost an election,” he said, holding Mr Trump responsible for an “entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe”.
But despite Mr McConnell’s censure and the Republican Party’s deep divide, the fact that 43 Republican senators nonetheless voted to acquit Mr Trump ultimately highlights his strong if tenuous grip on the party for now.
The vote removed a legal obstacle to Mr Trump staging a political comeback should he choose to run for election in 2024, as he risked being disqualified to run for the presidency again if found guilty.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Mr Trump said in a statement following the verdict. “In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”
Mr Trump, however, remains without the social media platforms that he once used to reach millions and rally political support among his diehard fans, and his legal troubles may also not be over. Mr McConnell said that though he believed former officials were not eligible for impeachment or conviction, Mr Trump was not beyond the reach of ordinary courts of law.
The conclusion of the impeachment trial was briefly cast into doubt on Saturday after a last-minute request for witnesses who could reveal what Mr Trump was doing as the assault unfolded.
Instead, the two legal teams soon agreed to admit as evidence a written statement by a Republican congresswoman who has said she was told that Mr Trump sided with the mob as rioters were attacking the Capitol.
For Democrats, the closure of this chapter means the Senate can turn its whole attention to President Biden’s immediate agenda of tackling the coronavirus pandemic and delivering relief from the economic crisis.
With harrowing footage of the Capitol attack, Democrats also got their chance to make their case on just how much Mr Trump damaged the country and its political institutions, tarring those who side with him. But his hold on his party remains intact.