Former US president Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA
Former US president Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA

Donald Trump’s impeachment trial exposed the political dilemma for Republicans struggling to move past the former president, as a majority of GOP senators show they are unwilling to publicly defy him without knowing how tight a grip he still has on the party’s base.

Forty-three Republican senators voted to find Trump not guilty at the trial’s end on Saturday, enough to acquit him on the single impeachment count. A conviction would probably have prevented him from ever running again, but instead he got a reprieve that allows him to remain a presence in Republican politics for now.

That may ultimately force a reckoning for Republicans, who lost the White House and the Senate in 2020 under Trump’s leadership and who may hope the stain of a double impeachment and a deadly riot at the Capitol will deny him a future in the party.

Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who voted to acquit the former president, said Trump’s actions will make it hard for him to go forward as a leader of the GOP or a candidate for president again in 2024.

“I feel like he’s made it pretty difficult to gain a lot of support,” Cramer told reporters before the trial ended. “Now, as you can tell, there’s some support that will never leave. But I think that there’s a shrinking population and it probably shrinks a little bit after this week.”

Seven Republicans broke from the pack — more than expected at the trial’s start — and voted with Democrats and independents for his conviction, making it the most bipartisan impeachment verdict in US history. But two of them aren’t running for re-election, three won’t go before voters again for six years and the other two — Lisa Murkowski, who will be up for election in 2022, and Mitt Romney, who is up in 2024 — have solid political bases in their home states.

The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things
Mitch McConnell, Senate GOP leader 

The conflict for Republicans was illustrated by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. He had criticised Trump’s actions surrounding the January 6 Capitol assault and his baseless claims about the election. Before the trial, McConnell left open the chance that he might vote to convict.

He didn’t. But he attempted to straddle both wings of the party with a scorching speech after the vote, calling Trump “practically and morally responsible” for sparking the riot. “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things,” McConnell said.

Like many other Republicans, McConnell turned to a procedural off-ramp, saying he interpreted the constitution as limiting impeachment to current officeholders even though it was McConnell who denied Democrats’ request to rush through a trial in Trump’s final week in office.

Despite his acquittal, Trump will inevitably be tarnished by the events of January 6 and the dramatic videos of the violence shown during the trial by House impeachment managers. Still, the former president, or at least the populist element he has empowered, is still a force within the GOP.

Trump issued a statement minutes after the Senate acquitted him, vowing that the “historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun”.

Members of Congress who have crossed Trump have faced a backlash in their states. The Republican Party of Louisiana’s executive committee announced on Saturday it voted to censure Senator Bill Cassidy for his vote to convict Trump — the latest in a series of such actions by state and county parties for Republicans accused of insufficient loyalty to Trump.

Trump had already announced plans to retaliate against Republicans who crossed him. The former president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jnr, tweeted a critical video on Saturday and vowed retribution against McConnell and other Republicans.

Lowest approval

Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, sees the strong Republican opposition to impeachment as a sign Trump’s populist wing of the party remains dominant.

“It tells me that it will take a lot more than we’ve seen thus far to undermine the populist wing’s control of the Republican Party primaries,” he said. “The real question is how much damage will be done to the Republican Party brand, and it’s too early to determine that at this point.”

Trump ended his term with the lowest job approval of his presidency — 29% — amid a surge in negative sentiment about his post-election conduct, including his call for supporters to march to the Capitol, according to a January survey by the Pew Research Center. And 68% of Americans don’t want him to remain a major political figure after he leaves office, according to the January 8-12 survey of 5,460 US adults.

But 57% of Republican or Republican-leaning voters said he should continue to be a major political figure for years to come in the Pew survey, and 64% of those voters say he either definitely and probably won the 2020 election, which he did not.

Most of the GOP senators seen as potential future presidential candidates voted with Trump, with many of them also asking questions during the proceedings seeking to undermine the prosecution’s case. Some, like Ted Cruz of Texas, even offered behind-closed-doors advice to Trump’s lawyers during the trial.

Ayres suggested the direction of the party is likely to hinge on how President Joe Biden governs; how prominent a role Trump tries to take in Republican party politics; and whether a political figure emerges who can unite the GOP populist and “governing” wings.

They kind of describe him as the ex-husband they divorced, at least the women do
Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership

Ayres said he’s not sure what might have moved more Republicans to support impeachment, given how polarised the country has become.

“If the crowd had actually caught Mike Pence and killed Mike Pence, would it have changed that?” he said of the January 6 rioters.

Sarah Chamberlain, president of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, which includes all 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment, said the party needs to find a way to move past Trump or else risk repelling suburban voters, particularly women.

“I think that’s why it’s really important the leadership come together with a new message. Donald Trump is not the president any more, and we need to move forward with a new message,” she said.

Many suburban voters “are ready to put the Trump era behind them,” she said, adding that many liked his policies, but not his tweets. “They kind of describe him as the ex-husband they divorced, at least the women do,” she said.

Chamberlain said Republicans can unite in challenging Biden’s agenda if it veers too far Left. She said the group’s polling suggests coalescing around a platform of coronavirus vaccinations, getting kids back to school, lowering the cost of health insurance premiums and tax breaks for child care.

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said the Republican Party will have a hard time moving on from Trump, even if many of them want to.

“It’s a dilemma because if you don’t like what it’s become, it’s like: leave, because this is a party that doesn’t play nice with outliers,” he said. “You basically have to risk your career in the Republican party and in politics if you’re going to take a stand.”


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