McConnell, Denouncing Trump After Voting to Acquit, Says His Hands Were Tied

WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell said he believed that Donald J. Trump was undeniably guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” on Jan. 6, when he incited and then failed to do anything to halt a deadly assault on the Capitol.

“There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, declared Saturday afternoon in an anti-Trump diatribe so scathing that it could have been delivered by any of the nine House prosecutors seeking a conviction.

But minutes before he spoke, when it came time for the most powerful Republican in Washington to hold Mr. Trump to account on the charge of causing the riot, Mr. McConnell said his hands were tied. It could not be done, he argued. He voted to acquit.

“We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen,” Mr. McConnell, who said he reached that conclusion after “intense reflection,” said as he delivered a lawyerly explanation on the limits of Senate power.

Offering his most damning condemnation of Mr. Trump to date, Mr. McConnell accused the former president of spreading lies about a stolen election that he knew would stoke dangerous acts by his followers — though the senator said little about his own refusal for weeks to recognize President Biden’s victory, which helped create the conditions for Mr. Trump’s claims to continue to spread, unchallenged by top Republicans.

He spoke at length about the unfortunate coincidence of timing that he said deprived the Senate of jurisdiction in the trial, alluding to “scheduling decisions” by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to withhold the impeachment charge until Mr. Trump had left office. He did not dwell on his own refusal to call the Senate back to hear the case while Mr. Trump was still president, except to say that he had been right “not to entertain some light-speed sham process to try to outrun the loss of jurisdiction.”

Outraged Democrats saw the approach as a classic McConnell tactic: Create a politically expedient standard and then argue that the standard left him no choice but to do what suited him in the first place. They argued that he had tried to have his politics both ways, appeasing Mr. Trump’s supporters with his vote to acquit while trying to signal to establishment figures that he sided with them and they should continuing backing Republican candidates.

The dance around the conviction question by Mr. McConnell — a man usually eager to deploy the might of the Senate to suit his purposes — encapsulated the dilemma of Republicans, 42 of whom joined Mr. McConnell in judging Mr. Trump not guilty and delivering his second Senate impeachment acquittal in little more than a year. Only seven voted to convict.

They themselves were the victims of the attack. Violent intruders rifled through their centuries-old mahogany desks and personal papers and sent them fleeing down a back stairway for their lives, as the mob loudly threatened the life of their presiding officer, Vice President Mike Pence. Most privately acknowledge Mr. Trump was to blame.

Yet most could not bring themselves to find him guilty of sparking the chaos, brutality and darkness that engulfed the Capitol, for fear of potentially offending the Trump supporters Republicans have come to rely on to win elections, and will need again in 2022 if they hope to regain the Senate — a paramount goal of Mr. McConnell’s.

They offered myriad justifications. Like Mr. McConnell, they said it was unconstitutional given that Mr. Trump was no longer president. They said Mr. Trump used the fiery, pugnacious language all politicians employ. The timeline was fuzzy. Prosecutors could not tie him explicitly to the start of the riot. Bad precedents would be set. Democrats were acting out of political malice. This was a matter for criminal courts. They said he was not the only one who contributed to the toxic environment.

“He has some responsibility, as do many of the people in that chamber today,” said Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina.

Democrats said they were stunned that most Republicans would effectively give Mr. Trump a pass for bringing about the assault, particularly since it was aimed at the Senate itself.

“It is shocking,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado.

“As strong as the indictment of Donald Trump, it is also an indictment of Republicans,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “Neither has been convicted in a legal sense, but in a moral and political sense they have. How they can try to walk away and look the other way is beyond me.”

In his remarks on Saturday, Mr. McConnell characterized his delay in recognizing Mr. Biden as defending “the president’s right to bring any complaints to our legal system. The legal system spoke.” But rather than ending his push to undermine the election, Mr. McConnell said, it “just really opened a new chapter of even wilder, wilder and more unfounded claims.”

“The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things,” he said.

Mr. McConnell has been at the center of the Republican impeachment intrigue since the assault. The seven-term senator, who considers himself a guardian of the institution, was furious over the events. He said Mr. Trump had provoked the assault, sending hints that he could vote to find him guilty and prompting speculation that he could become the improbable ringleader of a coalition of Republicans large enough to secure a conviction.

But then, as it became clear that the bulk of the party was rallying behind the former president, Mr. McConnell appeared to have second thoughts, voting twice to throw out the trial as unconstitutional because Mr. Trump was no longer in office.

As speculation built that he might vote against Mr. Trump, the Republican leader conceded in an email to his colleagues Saturday morning that although he intended to vote to acquit, he considered it a “close call.”

Later, in his speech after the acquittal, Mr. McConnell said his reading of the Constitution showed impeachment to be a “narrow tool” meant to remove officials from office, not pursue them after they had left.

It was not an assessment all Republicans shared. “This institution needs to respect itself enough to tell the executive that some lines cannot be crossed,” said Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, one of the Republicans who backed conviction.

Mr. McConnell has come to despise the 45th president he aided and accommodated for four years, particularly in filling federal judgeships. He now regards Mr. Trump as a danger to his party but is being cautious in his handling of him.

Mr. McConnell had considered voting to convict the former president as a means of purging him from the party, but allies said he concluded he could not practically as his party’s leader side with a minority of his colleagues rather than the overwhelming number who said the trial was invalid and voted to acquit. Instead, he mustered all his rhetorical strength to try to damage Mr. Trump’s credibility at the close of the proceeding.

When the attack was underway, Mr. McConnell said, Mr. Trump abdicated his responsibility as commander in chief, and afterward, he refused to drop his baseless election lies.

“Whatever reaction he says he meant to produce by that afternoon, we know he was watching the same live television as the rest of us,” Mr. McConnell said. “A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags and screaming their loyalty to him.”

He added: “He did not do his job. He did not take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed and order restored. No, instead, according to public reports, he watched television happily — happily — as the chaos unfolded.”

Mr. McConnell also rejected one of the most explicit defenses by Mr. Trump’s lawyers: that his words had been no different than those of any other politician advocating a cause.

“That is different from what we saw,” he said.

Now, Mr. McConnell argued, it was up to the criminal justice system to hold the former president to account, though the possibility of that appeared exceedingly remote.

Mr. Trump, he insisted, “didn’t get away with anything — yet.”

He spoke at length about the unfortunate coincidence of timing that he said deprived the Senate of jurisdiction in the trial, alluding to “scheduling decisions” by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to withhold the impeachment charge until Mr. Trump had left office. He did not dwell on his own refusal to call the Senate back to hear the case while Mr. Trump was still president, except to say that he had been right “not to entertain some light-speed sham process to try to outrun the loss of jurisdiction.”

Outraged Democrats saw the approach as a classic McConnell tactic: Create a politically expedient standard and then argue that the standard left him no choice but to do what suited him in the first place. They argued that he had tried to have his politics both ways, appeasing Mr. Trump’s supporters with his vote to acquit while trying to signal to establishment figures that he sided with them and they should continuing backing Republican candidates.

The dance around the conviction question by Mr. McConnell — a man usually eager to deploy the might of the Senate to suit his purposes — encapsulated the dilemma of Republicans, 42 of whom joined Mr. McConnell in judging Mr. Trump not guilty and delivering his second Senate impeachment acquittal in little more than a year. Only seven voted to convict.

They themselves were the victims of the attack. Violent intruders rifled through their centuries-old mahogany desks and personal papers and sent them fleeing down a back stairway for their lives, as the mob loudly threatened the life of their presiding officer, Vice President Mike Pence. Most privately acknowledge Mr. Trump was to blame.

“As strong as the indictment of Donald Trump, it is also an indictment of Republicans,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “Neither has been convicted in a legal sense, but in a moral and political sense they have. How they can try to walk away and look the other way is beyond me.”

In his remarks on Saturday, Mr. McConnell characterized his delay in recognizing Mr. Biden as defending “the president’s right to bring any complaints to our legal system. The legal system spoke.” But rather than ending his push to undermine the election, Mr. McConnell said, it “just really opened a new chapter of even wilder, wilder and more unfounded claims.”

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