‘Democracy fragile,’ Biden says as Senate acquits Trump
WASHINGTON—The US Senate acquitted Donald Trump on Saturday in his second impeachment trial in a year, with fellow Republicans blocking conviction over the former president’s role in the deadly assault by his supporters on the US Capitol.
US President Joe Biden, in a statement issued hours after the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump, said, “This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile.”
The Democratic leader said further that “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.”
The Senate vote of 57-43 fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection after a five-day trial in the same building ransacked by his followers on Jan. 6, shortly after they heard him deliver an incendiary speech.
In the Senate vote, a record seven of the 50 Republicans joined the chamber’s unified Democrats in favoring conviction. Trump was impeached for the second time in January by a bipartisan vote at the House of Representatives.
He left office on Jan. 20, so impeachment could not be used to remove him from power. But Democrats had hoped to secure a conviction to hold him responsible for a siege that left five people including a police officer dead and to set the stage for a vote to bar him from ever serving in public office again.
Given the chance to hold office in the future, they argued, Trump would not hesitate to encourage political violence again.
How the Senate voted
Trump’s attorneys argued that his words at the rally were protected by his constitutional right to free speech and said he was not given due process in the proceedings.Republicans saved Trump in the Feb. 5, 2020, vote in his first impeachment trial, when only one senator from their ranks—Mitt Romney—voted to convict and remove him from office.
Romney again voted for Trump’s conviction on Saturday along with fellow Republicans Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey and Lisa Murkowski.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted “not guilty,” but offered scathing remarks about the former president, saying that he was “morally responsible” for the Capitol riot.
“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”
The drama on the Senate floor unfolded against a backdrop of gaping divisions in a pandemic-weary United States along political, racial, socioeconomic and regional lines. The trial provided more partisan warfare even as Biden, who took office on Jan. 20 after defeating Trump in the November election, called for healing and unity after his predecessor’s four turbulent years in power and a caustic election campaign.
Seventy-one percent of American adults, including nearly half of all Republicans, believe Trump was at least partially responsible for starting the Capitol assault.
But only about half of the country thought Trump should be convicted of inciting insurrection, according to an Ipsos poll conducted for Reuters.
Trump, 74, continues to hold a grip on his party with a right-wing populist appeal and “America First” message. The wealthy businessman-turned-politician has considered running for president again in 2024.
He is only the third president ever to be impeached by the House—a step akin to a criminal indictment—as well as the first to be impeached twice and the first to face an impeachment trial after leaving office. But the Senate still has never convicted an impeached president.
Prevent a repeat
Democrats forged ahead with impeachment despite knowing it could overshadow critical early weeks of Biden’s presidency.
During the trial, nine House lawmakers serving as trial managers, or prosecutors, urged senators to convict Trump to hold him accountable for a crime against American democracy and to prevent a repeat in the future.
The House managers argued that Trump summoned the mob to Washington, gave the crowd its marching orders and did nothing to stop the ensuing violence.
The defense lawyers accused Democrats not only of trying to silence Trump as a political opponent they feared facing in the future, but of attempting to criminalize political speech with which they disagreed and aiming to cancel the voices of tens of millions of voters who backed him.
They said the trial was unconstitutional because he had already left office. The words Trump used, they argued further, were no different than those regularly employed by Democrats.
Trump’s acquittal does not end the possibility of other congressional action against him, such as a censure motion.
But Republicans seemed dead set against an idea floated by Democrats of invoking the Constitution’s 14th Amendment provision barring from public office anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the government.
The impeachment proceedings also can be viewed in the context of a battle for the future of the Republican Party, as some Republicans—mostly moderates and establishment figures—have voiced alarm at the direction Trump has taken their party.
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