By Jeremy Herb, Manu Raju, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox,
The Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial Saturday, voting that Trump was not guilty of inciting the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol — but the verdict amounted to a bipartisan rebuke of the former President with seven Republicans finding him guilty.
The final vote was 57 guilty to 43 not guilty, short of the 67 guilty votes needed to convict.
Held exactly one month after the House impeached Trump, the number of Republican senators who voted against Trump ended up higher than even what Trump’s legal team had anticipated, marking a stark departure from the first impeachment trial last year when only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, found Trump guilty.
This time, Republicans Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Romney voted to convict Trump. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Burr, the former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman who led the Senate’s Russia investigation, after he voted earlier in the week that the trial was unconstitutional. Both Burr and Toomey are retiring from the Senate at the end of 2022.
Burr said that while he believed the trial was unconstitutional, he decided to put that aside after the Senate voted Tuesday that the trial was constitutional and should proceed.
“As I said on January 6th, the President bears responsibility for these tragic events. The evidence is compelling that President Trump is guilty of inciting an insurrection against a coequal branch of government and that the charge rises to the level of high Crimes and Misdemeanors. Therefore, I have voted to convict,” Burr said in a statement.
The vote underscored the obvious dilemma Trump has posed to most congressional Republicans in the aftermath of the January 6 riots, with many Republican senators eager for the party to move on from the former President but grappling with the reality that he still holds sway over the party’s base. It’s a dichotomy that the party will face heading into the 2022 midterm elections, when it seeks to regain control of Congress, and the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
Most Senate Republicans sided with the constitutionality argument in their votes to acquit, allowing them to avoid casting judgment based on Trump’s conduct. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a blistering criticism of Trump’s actions on the Senate floor after the vote, but McConnell said he voted to acquit because he did not believe convicting an ex-president was constitutional.
“The Senate’s decision today does not condone anything that happened on or before that terrible day,” McConnell said. “It simply shows that senators did what the former President failed to do. We put our constitutional duty first.”
Lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland hailed the vote, saying it was the most bipartisan impeachment in history.
“The bottom line is that we convinced a big majority in the Senate of our case,” Raskin said.
And in a Saturday night statement hours after the Senate vote, President Joe Biden said that the “substance of the charge is not in dispute,” and noted the bipartisan nature of the vote.
“While the final vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge is not in dispute. Even those opposed to the conviction, like Senate Minority Leader McConnell, believe Donald Trump was guilty of a ‘disgraceful dereliction of duty’ and ‘practically and morally responsible for provoking’ the violence unleashed on the Capitol,” Biden said in his first comments since Trump’s acquittal.
Trump’s attorney Michael van der Veen, however, said the former President was “vindicated” by Saturday’s vote to acquit him.
“He had a good day in court today. He was vindicated. He was found not guilty,” van der Veen said after the vote. “The political witch hunt that they had, that the Democrats had thrown at him was defeated, so he should feel quite pleased.”
Vote comes after surprise call for witnesses
Closing the House managers’ argument, Raskin played to senators’ sense of history in urging them to convict the former President for inciting the rioters to attack the Capitol and failing to stop them after the violence unfolded.
“This is almost certainly how you will be remembered by history,” Raskin said. “That might not be fair. It really might not be fair. But none of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now. Our reputations and our legacy will be inextricably intertwined with what we do here, and with how you exercise your oath to do impartial justice.”
Van der Veen argued that Trump did not incite a riot that had been preplanned, again repeating the falsehood that the rioters represented both left and right fringe groups, when video evidence and court documents conclusively show that the riot was perpetrated by Trump supporters.
The final vote came quickly on the fifth day of the Senate trial after a surprise Democratic request for witnesses earlier Saturday threw the trial briefly into chaos.
The Senate voted 55 to 45 to consider witnesses — with five Republican joining Democrats — after the managers said they wanted to hear from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican who had told CNN new details about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s phone call with Trump on January 6. But after several hours of intense negotiations between Senate leaders, the managers and Trump’s legal team, the managers agreed to enter Herrera Beutler’s statement into the trial record as evidence and move forward without hearing from witnesses.
On Saturday morning, Democratic senators had expected House managers to move past witnesses onto closing arguments and a final vote. But Raskin announced when the trial got underway that the managers wanted to subpoena Herrera Beutler about her knowledge of McCarthy’s phone call. Herrera Beutler, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month, confirmed in a statement Friday that McCarthy said the President told him on the call, “‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.'”
Concerns that calling witnesses would backfire
House Democrats ultimately decided to cut a deal over witnesses because of the unpredictability of how that would turn out and fears that doing so could backfire and undermine their case, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions.
Democrats didn’t make a decision to call Herrera Beutler to testify until shortly before the proceedings began Saturday morning, sources said. The managers debated until nearly 3 a.m. ET Saturday morning about whether to call witnesses following news of the McCarthy call, including consulting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Managers had their eyes set on at least two possible witnesses — Herrera Beutler and Rep. John Katko of New York — who also voted to impeach, according to a source with direct knowledge of the deliberations. A spokesman for Herrera Beutler said she would have been willing to testify.
Among the variety of reasons they did not go forward, they were warned bluntly by Senate Democrats that moving forward on witnesses could stall the Senate since the Trump team could move forward with any number of motions for witnesses. Each motion would require two hours of debate. That warning was delivered Saturday to the Democratic impeachment managers by Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who said he was conveying what Republicans had told him, according to the source along with a Coons aide.
Trump’s lawyers had responded to Raskin’s request by threatening to call 100 witnesses, and his legal team quickly had prepared a list of 300 potential names Saturday.
Coons twice spoke to the managers during the recess, first telling the managers that a delay would cost Republican votes to convict and could even cost Senate Democratic votes. “The jury is ready to vote,” Coons said. “People want to get home for Valentine’s Day,” according to a senior House Democratic aide.
Later, he returned again to tell the managers they should accept a deal to admit Herrera Beutler’s statement into evidence and not call witnesses.
It was an important moment that did accelerate things and get the trial back on track, officials said, because it came as staff for prosecutors were already on the phone trying to schedule a potential Zoom deposition.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia also approached a manager in the hallway to urge against moving forward with calling witnesses.
According to a Democrat familiar with the matter, the impeachment managers did not tell top Senate Democrats they wanted witnesses until five minutes before the proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer didn’t even know until that point, but he told the managers Friday night and Saturday morning that Senate Democrats would support whatever decision the mangers made — and reiterated that point on a caucus call Saturday.
They ultimately settled on submitting Herrera Beutler’s statement to the record as long as Trump’s attorney made a public statement agreeing to submit it as evidence. The reason:
The sources told CNN that Democrats were uncertain how Herrera Beutler’s testimony would come across after she was subject to cross examination, with some concerns that she could potentially undercut their case if there were holes in her account.
Moreover, if they called other witnesses, it could also backfire. For instance, McCarthy could provide testimony that defended Trump, undermining what they believe is a rock-solid case that Trump incited the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the sources said.
Plus witnesses would not ultimately change GOP senators’ minds, they concluded, while hearing from witnesses could bog down the Senate for weeks and imperil Biden’s agenda.
“We could have had 5,000 witnesses,” Raskin told reporters after the vote. “The point is that no number of witnesses demonstrating that Donald Trump continued to incite the insurrectionists even after the invasion of the Capitol would convince them. They wouldn’t be convinced.”
GOP senators focus on constitutional argument
While there was plenty of drama over witnesses at the trial Saturday, the reality for Democrats was that additional evidence was still unlikely to change the final outcome of the trial.
The final vote was already telegraphed earlier in the week. The GOP senators who voted the trial of a former president was unconstitutional said that was what would determine their final vote, leaving the Senate well short of the 17 GOP senators needed for conviction.
Many Republicans, like McConnell, criticized Trump’s conduct but said they voted to acquit because of jurisdictional issue. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who is not seeking reelection next year, said, “My decision today in no way condones the president’s conduct. On the contrary, it is keeping an oath to the Constitution, that I believe the president did not keep on January 6.”
The six Republicans who voted the trial was constitutional all voted to convict Trump, joining the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him in the House last month. Several of those Republican senators — Collins, Murkowski, Romney and Cassidy — pressed Trump’s lawyers during the Senate’s question-and-answer session Friday over the actions Trump took — and failed to take — when he learned about the riots unfolding and tweeted Pence was lacking courage while he was being evacuated from the Senate.
Burr was the only senator who voted the trial was unconstitutional to also find Trump guilty.
For the Republican senators who voted to convict Trump, they could face political consequences, as House lawmakers who impeached him have been censured by local GOP officials. Murkowski is the only senator who voted to convict who is running for reelection next year, and told reporters afterward that her vote had nothing to do with politics.
“I’m sure that there are many Alaskans that are very dissatisfied with my vote, and I’m sure there are many Alaskans proud of my vote,” Murkowski said. “And I’m sure that that is the same of every 100 of us that just cast a vote in there. Because the country is split, and the country is divided. And the country has chosen sides in a way as we can see, can be very aggressive and can lead to violence.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Saturday.