Pull of partisanship helps Trump escape impeachment conviction: ANALYSIS

Republicans, most anyway, held together to support Trump.

February 13, 2021, 4:59 PM

It goes down as an acquittal -- the second one for the first president ever to be impeached twice, though also the only one to have members of his own party support conviction, twice.

While seven Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in voting for former President Donald Trump's conviction, the Senate fell 10 votes short of conviction. Trump was spared the ultimate punishment Congress could wield by powerful and familiar forces he has long understood, though those forces showed strain this time around.

Despite incendiary lies about election results, despite outrage over his actions and inaction during a horrifying attack on the Capitol that interrupted the counting of electoral votes and threatened the life of his own vice president, and despite a sometimes bumbling impeachment defense, Trump's Republican Party showed enough unity and loyalty to stave off conviction.

It happened without Trump admitting he did anything wrong. He did not even concede, directly or through his lawyers, that he lost the election fair and square.

Partisanship still held, just as it did so often during Trump's tumultuous time in office. The outcome was so little in doubt that Democrats backed off efforts to call witnesses even after winning a vote to do so Saturday morning -- preferring a quick wrap to a longer accounting that could consume days or weeks.

The accounting of Trump's words and deeds was thorough without witnesses, of course. House managers used videos, tweets and detailed timelines to make both specific and broad arguments that Trump's actions constituted incitement of violence and a dereliction of duty -- with senators themselves among those whose lives were in danger.

"The president knew this was happening he didn't do anything to help his vice president or any of you," House manager Rep. David Cicciline, D-R.I., said in his closing argument Saturday. "His sole focus was stealing the election for himself."

PHOTO: House lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin answers a question submitted by senators to the impeachment managers during the fourth day of the impeachment trial of the former President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill, Feb. 12, 2021.
House lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin answers a question submitted by senators to the impeachment managers during the fourth day of the impeachment trial of the former President Donald Trump on charges of inciting the deadly attack on the Capitol, on Capitol Hill, Feb. 12, 2021.
U.S. Senate TV via Reuters

"President Trump must be convicted for the safety and security of our democracy," said lead manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. "None of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now."

But in the telling of Trump and his team, the former president did nothing to incite his crowd of supporters to riot and threaten members of Congress and his own vice president. A lawyer for the president who made "alternative facts" famous at one point told a Republican senator during the trial, "I dispute the premise of your facts."

"No matter how much truly horrifying footage that we see of the rioters, and how much emotion has been injected into this trial, that does not change the fact that Mr. Trump is innocent," Trump attorney Michael van der Veen said. "The act of incitement never happened."

The defense was Trumpian -- combative, defiant, rambling at times and filled with contradictions and what-aboutism. It clearly frustrated House impeachment managers, whose meticulous and emotional case consumed far more time and covered far more factual ground.

"Get real. We know that this is what happened," Raskin told senators Friday, when pressed about whether Trump's actions contributed to the riot. "C'mon, how gullible do you think we are?"

"It wasn't just one speech or one thing. He was trying everything!" said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. "For us to believe otherwise is to think a rabbit came out of a hat."

PHOTO: Michael van der Veen, an attorney for former President Donald Trump, answers a question from Sen. Bill Cassidy, during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol Feb. 12, 2021.
Michael van der Veen, an attorney for former President Donald Trump, answers a question from Sen. Bill Cassidy, during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol Feb. 12, 2021.
Senate Television via AP

Trump's legal team chose not to hew to a narrow case about whether it's constitutional to put a former president on trial for impeachment. That made the case into something of a referendum on Trumpism, with the former president's outrages left open for interpretation.

His attorneys chose to defend Trump's falsehoods about election results in Georgia, and suggested that left-wing activists fomented the rioting of Jan. 6. They spliced misleading video to showcase prominent Democrats unfavorably and at one point even sought to defend Trump's infamous response to the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally.

The lawyers sparred with senators and House managers over the propriety of the proceedings and the evidence they brought forward. They also made vague references to what might happen if tens of millions of Trump supporters feel disenfranchised by seeing their favored candidate disqualified from future pursuits of office.

Trump attorney David Schoen warned that even holding the trial "will tear this country apart, perhaps like we have only seen once before in our history." Van der Veen said in his close that impeachment was part of a long-running effort to "shame, demean, silence and demonize" Trump supporters.

"I urge the Senate to acquit and vindicate the Constitution," van der Veen said.

Trump allies claimed immediate vindication, as expected. The flip side is that the vote leaves 43 Republican senators owning Trump; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that fact would weigh on their consciences going forward.

PHOTO: In this file photo, former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after participating in a Thanksgiving teleconference with members of the United States military, at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 26, 2020.
In this file photo, former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after participating in a Thanksgiving teleconference with members of the United States military, at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 26, 2020.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Democrats and historians will note the most bipartisan vote ever at a presidential impeachment trial. Still, the seven Republicans to vote "guilty" were a blend of retiring battleground-state senators, committed moderates and those whose independence from Trump is well-documented.

One possible winner in the swift dispatch of impeachment proceedings is Trump's successor. President Joe Biden has sought to put distance between himself and the charges and trial, with his White House putting far more focus on the enormous challenges posed by COVID-19, racial inequalities and broader political polarization.

Still, Trump and his political movement emerge battered but by no means chastened by the post-election period. The former president issued a statement calling the acquittal "another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country," adding that he will have more to say soon on "continuing our incredible journey together."

Barely a year ago, the lead House manager in the first Trump impeachment implored Republican senators to remove him from office.

"You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is," warned Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

Trump indeed remains who he is. But it's what he knew about the Republican Party he took over, and what he recognized and exploited about the lure of partisanship, that allowed him to escape congressional accountability -- twice.

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