Trump acquitted by Senate in second impeachment trial
On Saturday, February 13, the U.S. Senate voted mostly along party lines to acquit former president Donald Trump, who stood accused of inciting insurrection and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 by his supporters. Five people died that day.
The Senate voted 57 to 43, with seven Republicans—including Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski—joining all 50 Democrats finding Trump guilty of inciting the insurrection.
This was the most bipartisan vote to impeach ever; during Trump’s first impeachment trial, Utah Senator Mitt Romney was the only Republican break with his party. Despite this display of bipartisanism, the outcome was 10 votes short of the two thirds majority, or 67 votes needed to convict the former president.
Although this was the second impeachment trial for Trump and the second time he was acquitted by the Senate, it was also a first in many ways. Trump is the first president to be impeached twice (he was impeached last year and again by the House on January 13 on one charge of Incitement of Insurrection) and the first president to stand trial while no longer in office.
While Trump could no longer be removed from office through a conviction, Democrats were hoping that, if they could garner enough votes to convict, they could hold a second vote that would bar Trump from holding public office ever again. That vote only requires a simple majority, which can be attained with only Senate Democrats.
However, Trump had to first be convicted.
Trump’s acquittal was somewhat expected. Before proceedings could begin, senators voted on whether it is constitutional to put an individual no longer in office on trial. The vote to continue passed the House 56 to 44, allowing the presentation of cases to begin on Wednesday. This was somewhat of a preview of what was to come; a conviction required that 17 Republicans break from their party and only six, including Senator Murkowski, voted to go forward with the trial. A similar vote was put forward by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul a few weeks ago, with the same outcome. Then, only five Republicans voted to hear the trial.
In a statement expanding upon her decision to move forward with the trial, Murkowski said that even though an individual is no longer in office, he or she should still be held accountable for his or her actions. The vote was not about Trump, she said. Rather, foregoing a trial sets the precedent that a lame-duck president in his or her last few weeks will face no consequences. “If a civil officer could escape any punishment simply by resigning office, the impeachment power would be rendered toothless,” Sen. Murkowski said.
Alaska’s other senator Dan Sullivan voted to not continue with the trial and later voted against conviction.
Though it fell short of the necessary quota, two full days of emotional testimony from impeachment managers were enough to convince seven Republicans that Trump was guilty. This is the most conviction votes from his own party an impeached president has ever received. Along with Sen. Murkowski, the Republicans who found Trump guilty were: Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Murkowski explained her decision to convict Trump in a statement released on Sunday. She wrote, “If months of lies, organizing a rally of supporters in an effort to thwart the work of Congress, encouraging a crowd to march on the Capitol, and then taking no meaningful action to stop the violence once it began is not worthy of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from holding office in the United States, I cannot imagine what is.”
She stated that she believes there is a direct connection between Trump’s rhetoric and the storming of the Capitol. “The facts make clear that the violence and desecration of the Capitol that we saw on January 6 was not a spontaneous uprising,” Murkowski said. Rather, Trump has “set the stage” months ago —before the 2020 election —by calling into question the validity and fairness of the election. She continued, “President Trump did everything in his power to stay in power. The speech he gave on [January 6] was intended to stoke passions in a crowd that the President had been rallying for months.”
Sullivan also sent out a statement explaining his “not guilty” vote. His vote, he said, was less about whether or not Trump incited the riot, but rather about procedure and the political implications of impeaching an individual no longer in office. Despite “emotional and wrenching presentations” from the prosecution, Sullivan wrote that “the constitutional purpose of impeachment is to remove an official from office—and, in this case, that purpose has already been achieved.” U.S. voters, he said, have the ability to determine whether or not a president should hold office, which they already did by voting Trump out. “I strongly believe that the Senate does not have jurisdiction to try a former President who is now a private citizen,” Sullivan explained. He added the “massive expansion of Congress’ impeachment powers” could set an unwanted precedent. That is, the “temptation” to use impeachment as “a regular tool of partisan warfare in the future will be great and has the potential to incapacitate our government,” Sullivan wrote.
With the first day devoted to the constitutionality of the trial, the prosecution began making its case against Trump on Wednesday. Presenting the case for impeachment were a team of impeachment managers selected by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The team was composed of nine House Democrats, led by Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin. As the senior-most member of the majority party, President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, presided over the trial.
Each side was allotted 16 hours to make their arguments, and the prosecution used most of this time. The impeachment managers’ argument centered around how Trump’s repeated false statements about election fraud, as well as his remarks to the crowd on January 6—which included telling his supporters to “fight like hell”—incited the insurrection. Rioters, the prosecution argued, were simply following Trump’s orders. To support their claims, the prosecution showed videos of Trump propagating the “big lie” of a stolen election as well as footage —some never before seen— of his supporters storming the Capitol. This included a clip with rioters stating that Trump “invited them” into the building.
On their second day, the prosecution focused on Trump’s lack of remorse and failure to stop the mob’s attack. Together, this behavior showed that he “was expecting” and encouraging the insurrection. Support for this came from the newly-revealed information that, as members of Congress were running from the angry mob, Trump called Utah Senator Mike Lee. Rather than calling in the National Guard or telling rioters to stop, Trump was actually attempting to reach Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville to remind him to protest the election certification.
Neither side called witnesses, but impeachment managers and Trump lawyers reached an agreement that allowed a statement from Washington State Republican Representative Jamie Herrera Beutler to be admitted to the record.
In her statement, Beutler described a conversation the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had told her he had with Trump during the January 6 attack. According to the statement, when McCarthy called Trump to request that he call off the riot, Trump first repeated the false claim that antifa was storming the Capitol. After McCarthy discredited this statement, Trump allegedly told him, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Impeachment managers also emphasized that Trump had encouraged radicalism and violence throughout his term. For instance, after the deadly confrontation between white-supremacist groups and anti-racist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump stated that there were good people “on both sides.”
Last fall, Trump refused to condemn white supremacy during a debate. Instead, he told the far-right Proud Boys, which are designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to “stand back and stand by,” words which many members took as both an endorsement and a marching order.
Both directly and indirectly, Trump has been for years feeding the fire that culminated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, the prosecution argued. This, they claimed, makes him a current and future threat to the country. As Raskin put it: “What makes you think the nightmare with Donald Trump and his law-breaking and violent mobs is over?”
According to several different accounts, Trump’s defense got off to a shaky start. On Tuesday, the defense team’s lead counsel, Bruce Castor, gave a rambling opening argument in which he failed to present a clear defense or even directly address the charges. Castor began by speaking against the violence at the Capitol, but went on to spend the bulk of his 45-minute speech giving personal anecdotes, making vague historical references and speaking to the importance of the Senate itself in what appeared to be an attempt to flatter Senators. It was only about 40 minutes in that Castor gave a direct argument. “We are really here because the Majority of the House of Representatives does not want to face Donald Trump as a political candidate,” Castor stated.
Neither Castor’s attempt at flattery nor his argument turned out to be particularly compelling; his speech was described by several Republican senators as ineffective. According to Alaska Public Media, Murkowski told reporters that she was “stunned” by the speech. She explained that she “couldn’t figure out where he was going, [he] spent 45 minutes going somewhere, but I don’t think he helped us better understand where he was coming from on the constitutionality of this.”
Another Trump lawyer, David Schoen, presented a clearer argument, claiming that the impeachment trial was a partisan exercise in “cancel culture.” Democrats, according to Trump’s defense, view him as a political threat and therefore are attempting to eliminate him. However, the first day raised questions about where Trump’s defense would go with their arguments.
The night before the defense began making its case, a handful of Republican senators—including Sullivan—met with Trump’s lawyers to strategize.
Whereas the prosecution’s argument centered around connecting the dots between Trump’s speeches and the storming of the Capitol, his defense team sought to separate Trump from insurrection, arguing that the former president is not to blame for the riot. The idea that Trump had incited the riot was a lie, they argued, and compared Trump’s actions to rhetoric from Democrats.
To make this equation, Trump lawyers showed clips of Democrats telling their supporters to “fight” alongside numerous statements from Trump in which he spoke to the importance of “law and order.” They also drew comparisons between the storming of the Capitol and the Black Lives Matter protests; arguing that Trump is no more responsible for the former than Democrats are for the latter. Moreover, one lawyer repeated the statement — without any evidence —that antifa had been involved in the Capitol siege.
Despite this claim having been dismissed in a letter signed by over 140 constitutional scholars and First Amendment lawyers, Trump’s lawyers also argued that his statements were protected under the First Amendment. Because he has the right to free speech, therefore, Trump cannot be convicted of inciting the insurrection. In the letter, constitutional experts argue that the First Amendment is not meant to protect the kind of conduct Trump displayed and is not applicable defense during an impeachment trial.
The defense also rehashed several arguments from the first day, including the alleged unconstitutionality of the trial—a claim which the Senate has already rejected—and references to cancel culture and the silencing of a different viewpoint.
Whereas the prosecution took the better part of two days to make their case, Trump’s defense only used about three of their available 16 hours. Perhaps confident that they had the necessary votes no matter what they said, the defense concluded on Friday.
After both sides wrapped up their arguments, Senators were given four hours in total to question both sides. Senators then voted on whether to call witnesses; a vote which passed 55-45.
However, deposing witnesses would have extended the trial for weeks, which neither side wanted. House managers and Trump lawyers eventually reached the deal that allowed for the statement from Herrera Beutler to be admitted, but no witnesses.
After a few hours of confusion as the deal was reached, both impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team gave their closing arguments. The Senate held a vote on Saturday afternoon, concluding the second impeachment trial of former president Trump.