WASHINGTON – The impeachment trial of Donald Trump is over, again.
The 2020 election?
Not so much.
November’s contest wasn’t close – Joe Biden won it by more than 7 million votes – but its aftermath and the candidate who lost continue to cast a shadow over American politics in general, and the Republican Party in particular.
Although a majority of the Senate voted to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection, one that led to last month’s deadly assault on the Capitol, the former president on Saturday avoided the two-thirds majority required for conviction by holding the support of a solid majority of Republican senators. Free to run for the White House again, he immediately cast the trial as just another partisan outrage and a rallying cry for his supporters.
Since Election Day, Trump has been defeated for reelection, presided over his party’s loss of the Senate, and gained the unwelcome historical distinction of facing the Constitution’s most serious rebuke for a second time.
Though he has been damaged, the era in which he can be disregarded by the political world, from fellow Republicans to the new Democratic president, has not yet arrived.
As the Senate vote was concluding, Trump released a written statement that signaled he had no plans to leave the public scene. He denounced the trial as “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country” and then vowed, “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun.”
He survived after deploying the most Trumpian of defenses. His legal team listed grievances, attacked opponents as cheats and hypocrites, and made claims that at times were at odds with the facts. During the tense and sometimes angry trial, defense lawyer Michael van der Veen refused to answer when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked whether he believed Trump had won the election.
Trump’s acquittal “is bad for democracy,” said political scientist Susan Stokes, director of the University of Chicago’s Center on Democracy. “What it says is you can have a president and a leader of a major political party construct out of whole cloth what happens in an election that goes completely against reality, and get cynical party leaders to not disfavor or even (to) support that fabrication and get many voters to believe it – and with no consequences.”
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‘A burden’ for Biden’s beginning
Trump has never acknowledged that Biden defeated him fair and square, the conclusion reached by state election officials and federal law enforcement agencies from Trump’s own administration. His insistence that the election was “rigged” against him anyway continues to hold considerable sway: In a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll after the Jan. 6 assault, more than seven of 10 Republicans said Biden wasn’t legitimately elected.
That complicates the new president’s efforts to cultivate support across the aisle, giving GOP legislators little partisan incentive to cooperate with him. Stokes called it “a burden at the beginning of his presidency.”
“Republican members of Congress and senators, their actions are coming basically directly from what they’re hearing from their voters,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye, a veteran of Capitol Hill. “Their voters are still overwhelmingly supportive of Trump, and they’re vocal.”
Among those voters, skepticism about Biden’s legitimacy could erode his standing to command the bully pulpit even on matters that should be nonpartisan – the president’s appeal to Americans to wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, for instance.
“Donald Trump has poisoned the well by convincing a majority of Republicans that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president, just like he spent five years making the same argument against Barack Obama,” said Bill Press, an influential Democrat and former chair of the California Democratic Party. “But there’s nothing Biden can do about it but do his job.”
For Democrats, Trump’s acquittal was not a complete defeat, Press said. Their goal “was not only to impeach Donald Trump, but to tar the Republican Party forever with the violent invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6,” he said.
At the White House, Biden has done his best to ignore Trump, focusing instead on organizing his administration and pushing his legislative priorities. He has refused to respond to reporters’ questions about whether, if he were still a senator, he would have voted to convict his predecessor.
Late Saturday night, Biden issued a statement calling on Americans and their leaders “to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.” He said, “That is how we end this uncivil war and heal the very soul of our nation.”
Ignore the elephant in the caucus?
Ignoring Trump is a more difficult strategy to follow for Republicans.
All 50 Democratic senators and seven Republican senators voted in favor of the article of impeachment, by far more bipartisan support than in any of the nation’s three previous impeachments, including Trump’s first trial a little more than a year ago. Even so, it was 10 votes short of the 67 needed for conviction.
The senators who stuck with the former president generally didn’t defend his behavior in the lead-up and the response to the breaching of the Capitol. In a blistering critique from the Senate floor after the vote, Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying he was guilty of “a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
But McConnell and most of the others who voted against conviction cited their belief that the Senate didn’t have jurisdiction to impeach a president who had already left office.
That procedural argument meant that they could avoid making a direct and explicit break with Trump that might invite his wrath and prompt a Republican primary challenge down the road. It’s notable that two of the seven Senate Republicans who voted for conviction already had announced that they are retiring from politics. Only one, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is up for reelection next year.
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“There is a desire from some of the leadership to turn a corner and move on,” Heye said. “But that’s part of the party. That’s not the entire party. And that’s not the voters who are left” after an exodus of many moderates and suburbanites in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Trump’s continued clout is rare. In modern times, no defeated presidential nominee, including the two other presidents who lost bids for second terms, has continued to be a dominant voice in their party after his or her loss.
The House Democratic impeachment managers argued that the most serious consequence of Trump’s acquittal was the possibility that his refusal to accept the outcome of a democratic election might serve as a model for him or some other candidate down the road.
“If lying about the results of an election is acceptable, if instigating a mob against the government is permissible, if encouraging political violence becomes the norm, it will be open season, open season on our democracy,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., warned on the Senate floor moments after the vote was announced. “And everything will be up for grabs by whoever has the biggest clubs, the sharpest spears, the most powerful guns.”
By acquitting Trump, he said, “Republican senators have not only risked but potentially invited the same danger that was just visited upon us.”
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