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Key takeaways: With acquittal, Trump wins battle for the Republican soul

The Senate's action also has profound implications for the Democratic Party.
President Trump campaigns in Iowa
President Donald Trump raises his fist during a campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa, on Nov. 1.Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Republican civil war ended Feb. 13, 2021. Donald Trump won.

The decision by most GOP senators to acquit Trump in the 57-43 vote on a charge of incitement of insurrection demonstrates that deep hesitation remains in the party to disown the former president or his brand of politics — despite Trump's role in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which endangered their safety and that of others, in a failed attempt by his supporters to overturn his defeat in the election.

While impeachment managers won a majority of Senate votes to convict Trump, with seven Republicans joining all 50 Democrats and independents, the margin fell short of the two-thirds majority of 67 votes required under the Constitution to convict.

The impacts are likely to reverberate in American politics for years. Here's how the vote affects the relevant parties:

Donald Trump

The most direct impact of the acquittal is that it keeps the door open for Trump to run for president again in 2024. He will turn 78 that year, raising questions about whether he will pursue another vigorous campaign. He may also face criminal and civil court proceedings. But even if he doesn't run, the vote cements his status as a kingmaker with the influence to elevate his favored politicians in GOP primaries and hamper his adversaries.

Democratic impeachment managers forced senators to relive the horrors of the Capitol riot. Immediately after it happened, it was an open question whether Republicans would renounce him and seek to move in a different direction. That question was settled Saturday.

"He's a strong force in the party. There's no doubt about that," said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.

Senate Republican leaders' consensus in favor of acquittal sends a signal to aspiring officeholders, donors and activists: They're unlikely to build or support political infrastructure to elevate GOP candidates who stand against Trump.

During Trump's presidency, several Republicans who clashed with him left the party, including former Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, while others pulled the plug on their political careers, like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. The dynamics that exiled them were entrenched by Trump's acquittal.


That Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his entire leadership team voted to reject the charge approved by the House signifies that there won't be much of a fight in the party to renounce Trumpism.

That's a gamble: Since the day Trump officially entered politics as a candidate, the GOP has had high turnout when he has been on the ballot, in 2016 and 2020, and it has suffered major defeats when he hasn't been, in 2018 and the Senate runoffs in Georgia last month.

McConnell said his vote was based on a belief that it was unconstitutional to try a former president, and he gave a speech slamming Trump as "practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day." He didn't say whether he would have voted to convict Trump had he still been in office.

Other Republicans, also leery of defending Trump's behavior, justified their vote by arguing that the trial of a former president is unconstitutional. They faced heavy pressure from GOP voters in their states, who largely remain in Trump's corner and made it clear that they expect the same of their party leaders.

The Republican senators who voted to convict Trump were Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican who voted to convict him last year in the first impeachment trial; Susan Collins of Maine; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Ben Sasse of Nebraska; Bill Cassidy of Louisiana; Richard Burr of North Carolina; and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Romney voted to convict Trump last year, Collins and Murkowski have independent brands and are sometimes described as the two most moderate Republicans, Sasse is a Trump critic who bit his tongue for most of his presidency until he was renominated for his seat last summer, Toomey and Burr are retiring after the 2021-22 congressional session, and Cassidy doesn't face voters again until 2026.


What did Democrats achieve? They lost the final vote, and they whiffed on an eleventh-hour motion for witnesses, but they secured the most bipartisan impeachment in House history and the most bipartisan vote to convict a president in the Senate.

The managers compelled Trump's defense team and many Republicans to concede that they made a strong case — McConnell called his vote to acquit a "close call."

Surveys indicate that the Democrats won the battle for public opinion, as most Americans said they wanted Trump to be barred from holding federal office again. For better or for worse, the trial result ensures that their opposition will continue to be influenced by Trump.

Some Democrats were shocked by the GOP's willingness to stand behind Trump.

"I'm just incredulous," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told reporters Friday before the vote. "Incredulous, except I've watched, I've watched my spineless colleagues walk around with fear in their eyes for four years. And so maybe I shouldn't be surprised."