Republican Acquittal of Trump Is a Pivotal Moment for the Party

During the first trial of Donald J. Trump, 13 months ago, the former president commanded near-total fealty from his party. His conservative defenders were ardent and numerous, and Republican votes to convict him — for pressuring Ukraine to help him smear Joseph R. Biden Jr. — were virtually nonexistent. In his second trial, Mr. Trump, no longer president, received less ferocious Republican support. His apologists were sparser in number and seemed to lack enthusiasm. Far fewer conservatives defended the substance of his actions, instead dwelling on technical complaints while skirting the issue of his guilt on the charge of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. And this time, seven Republican senators voted with Democrats to convict Mr. Trump — the most bipartisan rebuke ever delivered in an impeachment process. Several others, including Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, intimated that Mr. Trump might deserve to face criminal prosecution. Mr. McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor after the vote, denounced Mr. Trump’s “unconscionable behavior” and held him responsible for having given “inspiration to lawlessness and violence.” Yet Mr. McConnell had joined with the great majority of Republicans just minutes earlier to find Mr. Trump not guilty, leaving the chamber well short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict the former president. The vote stands as a pivotal moment for the party Mr. Trump molded into a cult of personality, one likely to leave a deep blemish in the historical record. Now that Republicans have passed up an opportunity to banish him through impeachment, it is not clear when — or how — they might go about transforming their party into something other than a vessel for a semiretired demagogue who was repudiated by a majority of voters. Defeated by President Biden, stripped of his social-media megaphone, impeached again by the House of Representatives and accused of betraying his oath by a handful of Republican dissenters, Mr. Trump nonetheless remains the dominant force in right-wing politics. Even offline and off camera at his Palm Beach estate, and offering only a feeble impeachment defense through his legal team in Washington, the former president continues to command unmatched admiration from conservative voters. Indeed, in a statement celebrating the Senate vote on Saturday, Mr. Trump declared that his political movement “has only just begun.” The determination of so many Republican lawmakers to discard the mountain of evidence against Mr. Trump — including the revelation that he had sided with the rioters in a heated conversation with the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy — reflects how thoroughly the party has come to be defined by one man, and how divorced it now appears to be from any deeper set of policy aspirations and ethical or social principles. After campaigning last year on a message of law and order, most Republican lawmakers decided not to apply those standards to a former commander in chief who made common cause with an organized mob. A party that often proclaimed that “Blue lives matter” balked at punishing a politician whose enraged supporters had assaulted the Capitol Police. A generation’s worth of rhetoric about personal responsibility appeared to founder against the perceived imperative of accommodating Mr. Trump. Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution scholar and policy adviser to a number of prominent Republican officials, said the G.O.P. would need to redefine itself as a governing party with ambitions beyond fealty to a single leader. “When the conservative movement, when the Republican Party, have been successful, it’s been as a party of ideas,” Mr. Chen said, lamenting that much of the party was still taking a Trump-first approach. “Many Republicans are more focused on talking about him than about what’s next,” he said. “And that’s a very dangerous place to be.” In recent weeks, the party has been so submerged in internal conflict, and so captive to its fear of Mr. Trump, that it has delivered only a halting and partial critique of Mr. Biden’s signature initiatives, including his request that Congress spend $1.9 trillion to fight the coronavirus pandemic and revive the economy. Mr. Trump’s tenure as an agent of political chaos is almost certainly not over. The former president and his advisers have already made it plain that they intend to use the 2022 midterm elections as an opportunity to reward allies and mete out revenge to those who crossed Mr. Trump. And hanging over the party is the possibility of another run for the White House in three years. It remains to be seen how aggressively the party’s leadership will seek to counter him. Mr. McConnell has told associates that he intends to wage a national battle in 2022 against far-right candidates and to defend incumbents targeted by Mr. Trump. But by declining to convict Mr. Trump on Saturday, Mr. McConnell invited skepticism about how willing he might be to wage open war aga

Republican Acquittal of Trump Is a Pivotal Moment for the Party
During the first trial of Donald J. Trump, 13 months ago, the former president commanded near-total fealty from his party. His conservative defenders were ardent and numerous, and Republican votes to convict him — for pressuring Ukraine to help him smear Joseph R. Biden Jr. — were virtually nonexistent. In his second trial, Mr. Trump, no longer president, received less ferocious Republican support. His apologists were sparser in number and seemed to lack enthusiasm. Far fewer conservatives defended the substance of his actions, instead dwelling on technical complaints while skirting the issue of his guilt on the charge of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. And this time, seven Republican senators voted with Democrats to convict Mr. Trump — the most bipartisan rebuke ever delivered in an impeachment process. Several others, including Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, intimated that Mr. Trump might deserve to face criminal prosecution. Mr. McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor after the vote, denounced Mr. Trump’s “unconscionable behavior” and held him responsible for having given “inspiration to lawlessness and violence.” Yet Mr. McConnell had joined with the great majority of Republicans just minutes earlier to find Mr. Trump not guilty, leaving the chamber well short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict the former president. The vote stands as a pivotal moment for the party Mr. Trump molded into a cult of personality, one likely to leave a deep blemish in the historical record. Now that Republicans have passed up an opportunity to banish him through impeachment, it is not clear when — or how — they might go about transforming their party into something other than a vessel for a semiretired demagogue who was repudiated by a majority of voters. Defeated by President Biden, stripped of his social-media megaphone, impeached again by the House of Representatives and accused of betraying his oath by a handful of Republican dissenters, Mr. Trump nonetheless remains the dominant force in right-wing politics. Even offline and off camera at his Palm Beach estate, and offering only a feeble impeachment defense through his legal team in Washington, the former president continues to command unmatched admiration from conservative voters. Indeed, in a statement celebrating the Senate vote on Saturday, Mr. Trump declared that his political movement “has only just begun.” The determination of so many Republican lawmakers to discard the mountain of evidence against Mr. Trump — including the revelation that he had sided with the rioters in a heated conversation with the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy — reflects how thoroughly the party has come to be defined by one man, and how divorced it now appears to be from any deeper set of policy aspirations and ethical or social principles. After campaigning last year on a message of law and order, most Republican lawmakers decided not to apply those standards to a former commander in chief who made common cause with an organized mob. A party that often proclaimed that “Blue lives matter” balked at punishing a politician whose enraged supporters had assaulted the Capitol Police. A generation’s worth of rhetoric about personal responsibility appeared to founder against the perceived imperative of accommodating Mr. Trump. Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution scholar and policy adviser to a number of prominent Republican officials, said the G.O.P. would need to redefine itself as a governing party with ambitions beyond fealty to a single leader. “When the conservative movement, when the Republican Party, have been successful, it’s been as a party of ideas,” Mr. Chen said, lamenting that much of the party was still taking a Trump-first approach. “Many Republicans are more focused on talking about him than about what’s next,” he said. “And that’s a very dangerous place to be.” In recent weeks, the party has been so submerged in internal conflict, and so captive to its fear of Mr. Trump, that it has delivered only a halting and partial critique of Mr. Biden’s signature initiatives, including his request that Congress spend $1.9 trillion to fight the coronavirus pandemic and revive the economy. Mr. Trump’s tenure as an agent of political chaos is almost certainly not over. The former president and his advisers have already made it plain that they intend to use the 2022 midterm elections as an opportunity to reward allies and mete out revenge to those who crossed Mr. Trump. And hanging over the party is the possibility of another run for the White House in three years. It remains to be seen how aggressively the party’s leadership will seek to counter him. Mr. McConnell has told associates that he intends to wage a national battle in 2022 against far-right candidates and to defend incumbents targeted by Mr. Trump. But by declining to convict Mr. Trump on Saturday, Mr. McConnell invited skepticism about how willing he might be to wage open war against Mr. Trump on the campaign trail. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ridiculed Mr. McConnell for his ambivalent position after his floor speech, calling his remarks “disingenuous” and speculating that he had delivered them for the benefit of his financial backers who dislike Mr. Trump. The vote by Republicans to acquit Mr. Trump, she said in a statement, was among the “most dishonorable acts in our nation’s history.” Only a few senior Republicans have gone so far as to say that it is time for Mr. Trump to lose his lordly status in the party altogether. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the highest-ranking House Republican to support impeachment, said in a recent television interview that Mr. Trump “does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.” Several of the Republican senators who voted for conviction on Saturday thundered against Mr. Trump after he was acquitted, in terms that echoed Ms. Cheney’s explanation last month of her own vote to impeach him. “By what he did and did not do, President Trump violated his oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” said Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, a senior lawmaker who is close to Mr. McConnell. But the lineup of Republicans who voted for conviction was, on its own, a statement on Mr. Trump’s political grip on the G.O.P. Only Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is up for re-election next year, and she has survived grueling attacks from the right before. The remainder of the group included two lawmakers who are retiring — Mr. Burr and Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — and three more who just won new terms in November and will not face voters again until the second half of the decade. More typical of the Republican response was that of Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, a Trump loyalist serving his first term. The trial, he said on Saturday, was merely “a political performance” aimed at undermining a “successful” chief executive. In Washington, a quiet majority of Republican officials appears to be embracing the kind of wishful thinking that guided them throughout Mr. Trump’s first campaign in 2016, and then through much of his presidency, insisting that he would soon be marginalized by his own outrageous conduct or that he would lack the discipline to make himself a durable political leader. Several seemed to be looking to the criminal justice system as a means of sidelining Mr. Trump. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who voted for acquittal, noted in a statement, “No president is above the law or immune from criminal prosecution, and that includes former President Trump.” Prosecution may not be a far-fetched scenario, given that Mr. Trump is facing multiple investigations by the local authorities in Georgia and New York into his political and business dealings. But passing the buck has seldom paid off for Mr. Trump’s adversaries, who learned repeatedly that the only sure way to rein him in was to beat him and his legislative proxies at the ballot box. That task has fallen almost entirely to Democrats, who captured the House in 2018 to put a check on Mr. Trump and then ejected him from the White House in November. Still, Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a longtime Trump ally who has been critical of the former president since the November election, told reporters in the Capitol on Friday that he believed Mr. Trump would be weakened by the impeachment trial, even if the Senate opted not to convict him. (Mr. Cramer, who also called the trial “the stupidest week in the Senate,” voted for acquittal.) “He’s made it pretty difficult to gain a lot of support,” Mr. Cramer said of Mr. Trump. “Now, as you can tell, there’s some support that will never leave, but I think that is a shrinking population and probably shrinks a little bit after this week.” An even more categorical prognosis came from Ms. Murkowski. “I just don’t see how Donald Trump will be re-elected to the presidency again,” Ms. Murkowski said. If that projection seems anchored more in hope than in experience, there are good reasons for Republicans to root for Mr. Trump’s exit from the political stage. He is intensely unpopular with a majority of the electorate, and polls consistently found that most Americans wanted to see him convicted. Even in places where Mr. Trump retains a powerful following, there is a growing recognition that the party’s loss of the White House and the Senate in 2020, and the House two years before that, did not come about by accident. In Georgia, the site of some of the party’s most stinging defeats of the 2020 campaign, Jason Shepherd, a candidate for state party chair, said he saw the G.O.P. as grappling with the kind of identity crisis that comes periodically with “a loss after you’ve had a big personality leading the party,” likening Mr. Trump’s place in the party to that of Ronald Reagan. Republicans, Mr. Shepherd said, had to find a way to appeal to the voters Mr. Trump brought into their coalition while communicating a message that the G.O.P. is “bigger than Donald Trump.” But he acknowledged that the next wave of candidates was already looking to the former president as a model. “Republicans are trying to position themselves as the next Donald Trump,” he said. “Maybe, in terms of personality, a kinder and gentler Donald Trump, but someone who will stand up to the left and fight for conservative principles that do unite Republicans.”