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In impeachment trial, a clarifying moment for the GOP

Analysis: Across the political spectrum, the expected acquittal of Donald Trump foretells a future of right-wing populism for the GOP.
President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on Jan. 20, 2021.
Then-President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on Jan. 20, 2021.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump offers a clarifying moment for the GOP.

As the trial began Tuesday, Republican senators remained deeply — though not evenly — divided over whether to convict the party's most powerful figure and prohibit the former president from seeking office again. Six Republicans joined all 50 Democrats on the first day in voting to affirm the Senate’s right to try a former president.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead House impeachment manager, showed them video of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and recalled in emotional terms and vivid detail his effort to keep himself and his family members safe during it.

"This cannot be the future," Raskin said, his voice cracking.

With Democrats united in their judgment of Trump, it will be up to Republicans to determine whether the Senate punishes him for his role in the riot. Collectively, their individual decisions will bring into relief not just the future of the Republican Party for the next two years ahead of the 2022 midterm election, but also perhaps far beyond that.

Not only will they decide whether Trump remains their party's standard-bearer until the next presidential primary — as a possible candidate for the office he just lost — but also whether the GOP establishment wants to continue to be defined by the type of populism on which he built his political empire and then weaponized with an aim on the Capitol.

"The question is what direction is the party going to take," University of Chicago political science professor William Howell said of the GOP's choice between its Trump wing and its more traditional conservative roots. "If what we see is that Republicans basically across the board vote to acquit, then we conclude two things: populism will continue to maintain a grip on the party and the relevance of that distinction fades away a bit."

It is widely expected that the Senate will not convict Trump and, therefore, leave open his option to seek a comeback in 2024 — when he would be 78 on Election Day.

Regardless of whether he runs again, if Trump is acquitted, Republicans will keep their party firmly tied to a president who, according to a bipartisan House majority, incited an insurrection when a group of his followers stormed the Capitol in the deadly Jan. 6 assault. With votes far louder and more lasting than their words, they will condone a commander in chief turning to force to try to overturn the results of a legitimate election.

"What else would you take it as?" said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman and a frequent Trump critic. The prospect of Republican senators refusing to ban Trump from holding future office "tells you exactly everything you need to know about where they are," he added.

The impeachment trial comes on the heels of a series of votes in the House, and behind closed doors, that affirmed both the divisions within the GOP and the degree to which Trump might fare worse if the Senate voted by secret ballot.

In an internal caucus meeting last week, House Republicans voted decisively to keep Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in a leadership position despite calls for her removal because she voted to impeach Trump. She was one of 10 Republicans to abandon Trump, the most ever to vote against their own party's president on an impeachment.

Granted the secrecy of an anonymous ballot, 145 of the 206 House Republicans who voted wanted Cheney to remain as one of the most high-profile faces of their caucus.

But hours later when the House voted to strip freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments — a vote that is a matter of public record — only 11 Republicans joined a unified Democratic majority. When they are forced to side with or against Trump in public, most Republicans find their way to his camp quickly.

And yet, while 5 percent of the House Republicans were willing to impeach Trump, the percentage of Senate Republicans who would vote to convict could be larger.

Mitt Romney, the Utah senator who was the GOP's presidential nominee in 2012, voted to convict Trump last year after the president was impeached on a separate matter. Romney also voted against Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's failed attempt to declare the impeachment trial of a former president unconstitutional.

Romney was joined on the Republican side by Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voted with Paul and the rest of the GOP, but said he did so only to force a debate on the constitutionality of the trial.

"I’ve been very clear that former President Trump bears some responsibility for what happened on January 6 through his words and actions," Portman said in a Jan. 26 statement. "As the trial moves forward, I will listen to the evidence presented by both sides and then make a judgment based on the Constitution and what I believe is in the best interests of the country.”

For those who cross the partisan divide, they are likely to find a White House and congressional Democratic majorities more accommodating to their priorities on other matters.

But Rebecca Kirszner Katz, who served as an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said that the decisions of individual senators are far more likely to come down to political practicality — whether they are afraid of losing a primary challenge by voting to convict Trump — than principle or legislative opportunity.

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The difference, she said, "is basically the ones who are running for re-election and those who are retiring."

Portman, Toomey and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., are not seeking re-election in 2022. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., announced Monday that he will retire at the end of this term, too.

Steele said that even with the Trump wing still in charge, there are GOP lawmakers like Cheney, Romney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who have stood up for a more institutionalist wing.

"The battle lines have been drawn very starkly," Steele said. "Let's have that fight. But let's just understand that this is not one of those situations where you're fighting to hold onto something. It's fighting to get it back."

Republican senators have a chance to define their party going forward.

"If traditional conservatives aren't willing to stand up against the president in this moment," Howell said, the GOP "is the party of right-wing populism."