IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump impeachment may define the future of a divided Republican Party

"It sure seems like the last, best chance to stand up to the guy while it still matters," one GOP operative said.
Image: House Votes On Resolution Calling On Vice President Pence To Invoke 25th Amendment
Members of the National Guard gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With the impeachment vote Wednesday, Republicans stand on the brink of a historic decision over whether to punish or protect a president who many say incited a deadly mob to overrun the U.S. Capitol in a push to overturn the election result.

The decision could define the party and shape American democracy for generations to come.

Ten House Republicans voted for impeachment, most notably the third-ranking member, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who said President Donald Trump "lit the flame of this attack" and who accused him of an unprecedented "betrayal" of his oath to the Constitution.

The other Republicans who voted to impeach were John Katko of New York, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Fred Upton of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Dan Newhouse of Washington, Peter Meijer of Michigan, Tom Rice of South Carolina, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and David Valadao of California.

What happens next is unclear. The Senate requires a two-thirds majority to convict a president, which means at least 17 Republicans would need to join Democrats if the vote is taken after Jan. 20. That's a tall order.

The judgment of history looms. And for some who want to make a break from Trump and chart a new path for the Republican Party, time is running short.

"It sure seems like the last, best chance to stand up to the guy while it still matters," said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former GOP campaign operative. "Republicans can speak up now, or they can follow the path of least resistance, but at some point there will be a reckoning, and it will come at a political cost."

The political calculation is complicated for Republican lawmakers, as core voters in the party have latched on to Trump's groundless claims of mass fraud in the election and continue to support him.

The outcome may center on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime Trump ally who broke with him Jan. 6 when he made an impassioned plea to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory. McConnell told his GOP colleagues in a note Wednesday afternoon that he remains undecided whether he'll vote to convict Trump.

Others said his position could determine the outcome.

"I think if McConnell supports conviction in the Senate, then the votes will be there to convict the president," said a senior Republican aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

A Quinnipiac poll taken after the violence at the Capitol found that, among Republicans, 71 percent approve of Trump's job performance and 73 percent believe he is protecting, not undermining, democracy. Among voters overall, 60 percent disapprove of his performance, and 60 percent said he's undermining, not protecting, democracy.

"The political calculus is impossible for members to ignore, but if ever there was a time, it's now," said Rory Cooper, a consultant and former House GOP leadership aide who is critical of Trump.

"The public's reaction to the Capitol attack is nearly universally negative, according to polling done since, so attaching your condemnation to those events and those events only probably softens political blowback and gives members some shielding," he said. "Elections aren't for two years, and so the electoral risk is low today and grows exponentially."

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

The House voted Tuesday to pass a measure calling on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump, along with a majority of the Cabinet, by declaring him unfit to serve. It was a symbolic vote with no practical impact, as Pence made it clear earlier Tuesday that he wouldn't do that, and Congress lacks the authority to compel him.

Many Republicans rose to Trump's defense during the debate Tuesday night, accusing Democrats of being divisive.

"Why are the Democrats stoking the fire instead of dousing the flames?" asked Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who recently supported the effort to overturn the election result by voting against counting electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The 25th Amendment measure was just a prelude to the main event Wednesday, when the House passed the article of impeachment charging Trump with "incitement of insurrection."

If it convicts Trump, the Senate also has the power to bar him from holding office again, a move that could immediately change the shape of the 2024 primaries and make way for a new kind of GOP leader. That may not be what Republican voters want, but it has some appeal among lawmakers.

"I think there is a sizable majority in both chambers that desires an outcome where Trump cannot run for public office again," Cooper said.