Republican Acquittal of Trump Is a Defining Moment for Party

During the first trial of Donald J. Trump, some 13 months ago, the former president commanded near-total fealty from his party. His conservative defenders were ardent and numerous, and Republican votes to convict him — for pressuring Ukraine to help him smear Joseph R. Biden Jr. — were virtually nonexistent.

In his second trial, Mr. Trump, no longer president, received less ferocious Republican support. His apologists were sparser in number and seemed to lack in enthusiasm. Far fewer conservatives defended the substance of his actions, instead dwelling on technical complaints about his guilt on the charge of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

And this time, seven Republican senators voted with 50 Democrats to convict Mr. Trump — the most bipartisan repudiation ever delivered in an impeachment process.

Yet the great majority of Republicans refused to find Mr. Trump guilty on Saturday, leaving the chamber well short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him.

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who startled his party last month with a sharp denunciation of Mr. Trump’s conduct, voted to acquit, relying on thin procedural arguments.

Mr. Trump’s acquittal stands as a defining moment for the party he molded into a cult of personality, one likely to linger in the eyes of voters and leave a deep blemish in the historical record. If Republicans pass up an opportunity to banish him through impeachment, it is not clear when — or how — they might go about transforming their party into something other than a vessel for a semiretired demagogue who was repudiated by a majority of voters.

ImageSenate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has told associates that he intends to wage a national battle in 2022 against far-right candidates, and to defend incumbents targeted by Mr. Trump.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Defeated by President Biden, stripped of his social-media megaphone, impeached again by the House of Representatives and accused of betraying his oath by a handful of Republican dissenters, Mr. Trump remains the dominant force in right-wing politics. Even offline and off camera at his Palm Beach estate, and offering only a feeble impeachment defense through his legal team in Washington, the former president continues to command unmatched admiration from conservative voters.

The determination of so many Republican lawmakers to discard the mountain of evidence against Mr. Trump — including the revelation that he sided with the rioters in a heated conversation with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — reflects how thoroughly the party has come to be defined by one man, and how divorced it now appears to be from any deeper set of policy aspirations and ethical or social principles.

After campaigning last year on a message of law and order, Republican lawmakers decided not to apply those standards to a former commander-in-chief who made common cause with an organized mob. A party that often proclaimed “Blue Lives Matter” balked at punishing a politician whose enraged supporters assaulted the Capitol Police. A generation’s worth of rhetoric about personal responsibility appeared to founder against the perceived imperative of accommodating Mr. Trump.

Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution scholar and policy adviser to a number of prominent Republican officials, said the G.O.P. had to redefine itself as a governing party with ambitions beyond fealty to a single leader.

“When the conservative movement, when the Republican Party, have been successful, it’s been as a party of ideas,” Mr. Chen said. “So long as we focus on personalities, we’re going to be talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene and Trump and this person or that person.”

Mr. Chen lamented that too many in the party were still pursuing a Trump-first approach to politics: “Many Republicans are more focused on talking about him than about what’s next, and that’s a very dangerous place to be,” he said.

In recent weeks, the party has been so submerged in internal conflict, and so captive to its fear of Mr. Trump, that it has delivered only a halting and partial critique of Mr. Biden’s signature initiatives, including his request that Congress spend $1.9 trillion to fight the coronavirus pandemic and revive the economy. Mr. Trump has complicated Republicans’ quest to develop their own policy message: his contempt for fiscal restraint and his 11th-hour endorsement in December of $2,000 cash payments as a stimulus measure have left congressional Republicans with only weak standing to oppose Mr. Biden’s biggest plans.

Mr. Trump’s tenure as an agent of political chaos is almost certainly not over. The former president and his advisers have already made plain that they intend to use the 2022 midterm elections as an opportunity to reward allies and mete out revenge to those who crossed Mr. Trump. And hanging over the party is the possibility of another run for the White House in three years.

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Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

It remains to be seen how aggressively the party’s leadership will seek to counter those efforts. Mr. McConnell has told associates that he intends to wage a national battle in 2022 against far-right candidates and to defend incumbents targeted by Mr. Trump.

But by declining to convict Mr. Trump on Saturday, Mr. McConnell invited questions about whether he will be any more willing to fight Mr. Trump openly on the campaign trail than he was on the Senate floor.

Only a few senior Republicans have gone so far as to say that it is time for Mr. Trump to lose his lordly status in the party altogether. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the highest-ranking House Republican to support impeachment, said in a recent television interview that Mr. Trump “does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.”

Ms. Cheney may be emerging as the de facto leader of anti-Trump forces in the House, and she is certain to face a fierce challenge from the right in her home district next year. While she beat back an effort from Trump loyalists to remove her from her leadership position, five dozen of her Republican colleagues voted to depose her even after a plea from Mr. McCarthy to keep her in her post.

Among those hard-line members, it may have been Ms. Greene, the extremist Georgia freshman, who best summed up Mr. Trump’s place in the G.O.P.: “The party is his,” she said in a news conference earlier this month.

In Washington, a quiet majority of Republican officials appears to be embracing the kind of wishful thinking that guided them throughout Mr. Trump’s first campaign in 2016, and then through much of his presidency, insisting that he would soon be marginalized by his own outrageous conduct or that he would lack the discipline to make himself a durable political leader.

That reasoning has seldom paid off for Mr. Trump’s adversaries, who learned repeatedly that the only sure way to rein him in was to beat him and his legislative proxies at the ballot box. That task has fallen almost entirely to Democrats, who captured the House in 2018 to put a check on Mr. Trump and then ejected him from the White House in November.

Still, Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a longtime Trump ally who has been critical of the former president since the November election, told reporters in the Capitol on Friday that he believed Mr. Trump would be weakened by the impeachment trial, even if the Senate opted not to convict him. (Mr. Cramer, previously described the trial as “the stupidest week in the Senate,” voted for acquittal)

“He’s made it pretty difficult to gain a lot of support,” Mr. Cramer said of Mr. Trump. “Now, as you can tell, there’s some support that will never leave, but I think that is a shrinking population and probably shrinks a little bit after this week.”

An even more categorical prognosis came from Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a maverick Republican who is up for re-election in 2022. The evidence of the trial, she said this week, was damning.

“I just don’t see how Donald Trump will be re-elected to the presidency again,” Ms. Murkowski said.

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Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

If that projection seems anchored more in hope than in experience, there are good reasons for Republicans to root for Mr. Trump’s exit from the political stage. His popularity may be strong on the right, but his overall standing has fallen in public polls since the election and surveys have found that a majority of the country favors convicting him at trial.

Even in places where Mr. Trump retains a powerful following, there is a growing recognition that the party’s loss of the White House and the Senate in 2020, and the House two years before that, did not come about by accident — and that simply campaigning as the Party of Trump is not likely to be sufficiently appealing to win back control of Congress next year.

In Georgia, the site of some of the party’s most stinging defeats of the 2020 campaign, Jason Shepherd, a candidate for state party chair, said he saw the G.O.P. as grappling with the kind of identity crisis that comes periodically with “a loss after you’ve had a big personality leading the party,” likening Mr. Trump’s place in the party to that of Ronald Reagan.

Republicans, Mr. Shepherd said, had to find a way to appeal to the voters Mr. Trump brought into their coalition while communicating a message that the G.O.P. is “bigger than Donald Trump.” But he acknowledged that the next wave of candidates was already looking to the former president as a model.

“Republicans are trying to position themselves as the next Donald Trump.” he said. “Maybe, in terms of personality, a kinder and gentler Donald Trump, but someone who will stand up to the left and fight for conservative principles that do unite Republicans.”

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