The US Senate acquitted Donald Trump on Saturday of inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol last month, sparing him from conviction in his second impeachment trial in a year despite broad condemnation of his role in sparking the deadly siege.
The Senate voted 57-43 in favour of convicting the former president, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to do so, on a charge that he incited the insurrection that left five people dead, forced lawmakers to flee, and put his own vice president in danger while overseeing the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election win.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted “not guilty,” in the trial, offered scathing remarks about Trump after the verdict.
“There is no question that president Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” he said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”
President Joe Biden said that while the vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge was not in dispute, and a record number of Republicans had voted to convict Trump.
“This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile,” Biden said in a statement. “That it must always be defended. That we must be ever vigilant. That violence and extremism has no place in America. And that each of us has a duty and responsibility as Americans, and especially as leaders, to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
In the vote, seven of the 50 Senate Republicans joined the chamber’s unified Democrats in favouring conviction after a week-long trial in the same building ransacked by Trump’s followers after they heard him deliver an incendiary speech on 6 January.
This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended. That we must be ever vigilant. That violence and extremism has no place in America. And that each of us has a duty and responsibility as Americans, and especially as leaders, to defend the truth and to defeat the lies
During the trial, senators viewed graphic video of the assault, including scenes of a police officer screaming in pain as he was crushed in a door, the mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” as it hunted the vice president, and lawmakers having near-misses with rioters as security officers hurried the elected officials into hiding for their own safety.
Trump left office on 20 January, so impeachment could not be used to remove him from power. But Democrats had hoped to secure a conviction to hold him responsible for the siege and set the stage for a vote to bar him from serving in public office again.
“The bottom line is that we convinced a big majority in the Senate of our case,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead Democratic prosecutor from the House of Representatives.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Republicans’ refusal to hold Trump accountable would be remembered “as one of the darkest days and most dishonourable acts in our nation’s history.”
The swift end to the trial allows Biden to move forward with his agenda to bolster the economy with a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill and further confirmation of his cabinet members.
But divisions on Capitol Hill and around the country over his controversial predecessor will remain.
“This has been yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country,” Trump said in a statement after his acquittal.
Trump, 74, continues to hold a grip on his party with a right-wing populist appeal and “America First” message. The businessman-turned-politician has considered running for president again in 2024.
Republicans saved Trump in the 5 February 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 voted for conviction on Saturday along with fellow Republicans Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey, and Lisa Murkowski.
“His actions to interfere with the peaceful transition of power – the hallmark of our Constitution and our American democracy – were an abuse of power and constitute grounds for conviction,” Collins said after the vote.
Deeply Divided Nation
The acquittal 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 has called for unity.
Seventy-one per cent 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 he should be convicted of inciting insurrection, according to an Ipsos poll conducted for Reuters.
Trump is only the third president ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives - 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.
Democrats forged ahead with impeachment despite knowing it could overshadow critical early weeks of Biden’s presidency.
The House approved the single article of impeachment against Trump on 13 January, with 10 Republicans joining the chamber’s Democratic majority. That vote came a week after the pro-Trump mob stormed the neoclassical domed Capitol, interrupted the formal congressional certification of Biden’s victory, clashed with an overwhelmed police force, and invaded the hallowed House and Senate chambers.
‘Fight Like Hell’
Shortly before the rampage, Trump urged his followers to march on the Capitol, repeated his false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud, and told them that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
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. They said Trump summoned the mob to Washington, gave the crowd its marching orders and then did nothing to stop the ensuing violence.
The defence lawyers accused Democrats not only of trying to silence Trump as a political opponent they feared facing in the future but of attempting to criminalise political speech with which they disagreed.
The words Trump used, they argued, 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 Pelosi said such a measure would let Republicans who voted against conviction “off the hook.”
McConnell said Trump was now a private citizen and suggested he could still face criminal prosecution for his acts. “He didn’t get away with anything. Yet,” McConnell said.