In the moments after former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate for a second time in a little more than a year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rose to speak.
His message was clear: the former President could not be the future of the Republican Party.
Even as McConnell voted that Trump was not guilty Saturday for inciting an insurrection — raising constitutional and specific legal objections — McConnell’s words underscored the challenge for the Republican Party going forward.
They are torn between two competing interests: sticking with Trump enough to woo supporters for themselves and erasing Trump’s dangerous final days from the GOP’s legacy.
“Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said on the floor Saturday.
“Anyone who decries his awful behavior is accused of insulting millions of voters. That is an absurd deflection,” McConnell added. “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 that provoked it. One person did. Just one.”
The task before Republicans now will be detangling the pieces of Trump’s appeal to carry with them — and how much of the former President’s bombastic and conspiratorial tendencies they can truly leave behind.
Republican senators’ acquittal of Trump, they argue, should not be read as an all-out embrace of the former President or what he stood for or even practically as a promise they would back him in 2024 to lead their party in a race for the White House.
“Time is going to take care of that, some way or another,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who voted to acquit, said when asked if Trump should be the future of the party. “But remember in order to be a leader you’ve gotta have followers. So we’re going to find out whoever leads, but everyone is going to be involved, we’re a big tent.”
The Democratic House impeachment managers may not have convinced 17 Republicans to convict Trump for inciting an insurrection, but Republican senators were clearly shaken watching videos of members — and Trump’s own vice president — fleeing for safety as Trump did little to quell the rioters.
The House managers’ case, showing the violent attack and how the danger could have been so much worse, was intended as much as to win a conviction as it was to win the public battle over Trump’s conduct. The guilty votes from seven Republican senators was a significant rebuke, even if it didn’t mean Trump would be formally barred from holding office again.
“I think he is probably not likely to ever be President of the United States again based on what is going on right here right now,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican who voted to acquit Trump. “I think the impeachment process has been damaging because people have seen repeated images of how awful that night was and how inappropriate his response was. While it does not meet the standard in my view of inciting insurrection, it will have had that damaging effect.”
In a Saturday night statement hours after the Senate voted to acquit Trump of inciting the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol, President Joe Biden said that the “substance of the charge is not in dispute,” and noted the bipartisan nature of the vote, with seven Republicans voting with Democrats to find Trump guilty.
“While the final vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge is not in dispute. Even those opposed to the conviction, like Senate Minority Leader McConnell, believe Donald Trump was guilty of a ‘disgraceful dereliction of duty’ and ‘practically and morally responsible for provoking’ the violence unleashed on the Capitol,” Biden said in his first comments since Trump’s acquittal Saturday afternoon.
‘It’s an uncomfortable vote’
Cramer has also said in recent days he would have a “harder” time supporting Trump if he ran for president in the future.”
It would be harder for me given what’s happened, that has got to be part of what weighs on me,” Cramer told CNN.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican moderate from Alaska who voted guilty, told reporters earlier in the week that she too never saw Trump wining another election for president.
“I don’t see how after the American public sees the whole story laid out here — not just in one snippet on this day and another on that — but this whole scenario that has been laid out before us, I just, I don’t see how Donald Trump could be reelected to the presidency and I just don’t see that,” Murkowski said.