NEW YORK — The Republican Party still belongs to Donald Trump.
After he incited a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol last month, the GOP considered purging the norm-shattering former president. But in the end, only seven of 50 Senate Republicans voted to convict Trump in his historic second impeachment trial on Saturday.
For Trump’s loyalists, the acquittal offers a vindication of sorts and a fresh connection to the former president’s fiery base. And for Trump’s GOP antagonists, it marks another alarming sign that the party is lurching further in a dangerous direction with little desire to reconnect with the moderates, women and college-educated voters Trump alienated.
Ultimately, the resolution of the impeachment trial brings into clear relief a divide in the GOP that party leaders, donors and voters will have to navigate as they try to regain control of Congress next year and aim to retake the White House in 2024.
That tension was on display in the immediate aftermath of the vote. After supporting Trump’s acquittal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, delivered a speech that echoed some of the very points Democratic impeachment managers emphasized in seeking Trump’s conviction.
The former president, McConnell said, was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” that led to the insurrection. But he argued that there were no constitutional grounds for the Senate to convict Trump now that he’s out of office, a procedural point embraced by many in the GOP.
“He got a load off a chest obviously, but unfortunately he put a load on the back of Republicans,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, on “Fox News Sunday.” Graham said McConnell is “going to be center stage now” as Republicans try to win back the Senate in 2022.
The history books will show that 10 members of the president’s party in the House and another seven in the Senate ultimately believed that Trump’s behavior was egregious enough to warrant conviction — and even a lifetime ban on holding future office. Never before have so many members of a president’s party voted for his removal.
But by most objective measures, Trump’s grasp on the GOP and its future remains airtight.
Gallup reported last month that Trump’s approval among self-described Republicans stood at 82 percent. And more recently, Monmouth University found that 72 percent of Republicans continue to believe Trump’s false claims that President Joe Biden won the November election only because of widespread voter fraud.
Lest there be any doubt about Trump’s strength, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly last week to defend a diehard Trump loyalist, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, even after evidence surfaced that she had repeatedly embraced violence, bigotry and conspiracy theories on social media.
Just days after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Trump responsible for the violent attack, McCarthy reversed himself and made a personal visit to Trump’s Florida estate to ensure there was no lingering animosity.
Of the seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump on Saturday, only one faces reelection in the next four years. Indeed, in Trump’s Republican Party, there are very few willing to cross him if they harbor future political ambitions.
One of them, 2024 prospect Nikki Haley, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, drew attention last week after telling Politico that Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack essentially disqualified him from running for office again.
“He’s fallen so far,” Haley said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Another Republican presidential prospect, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, voted to convict Trump on Saturday, declaring that Trump’s “lies” about widespread voter fraud endangered “the life of the vice president” and are “bringing us dangerously close to a bloody constitutional crisis.”
While Sasse may run for president in 2024, he won’t face Republican primary voters in Nebraska again unless he chooses to run for reelection in 2026.
Similarly, GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana faced a censure by his state party after voting to convict Trump. But he won’t face voters again until 2026 so is relatively insulated from political consequences.
Despite McConnell’s criticism, Trump’s most vocal Republican opponents at this point will likely consist of a collection of retired Republicans on cable news and a “Never Trump” movement grappling with its own existential challenges.
The Lincoln Project, perhaps the most prominent and best-funded anti-Trump Republican group, is coming off a tumultuous week following revelations that its leaders knew about multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against a co-founder several months before acknowledging them publicly.
The self-described “senior leader” of the organization, veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, stepped down from the board on the eve of the Senate impeachment vote, a day after the Lincoln Project announced plans to bring in an outside investigator.
The fallout threatens to undermine the organization’s fundraising appeal and its influence, even as the super PAC works to expand its reach through a popular podcast and expanding streaming video channel that drew more than 4 million views last month alone.
Even before the crisis, co-founder Reed Galen acknowledged that Trumpism was winning.
“The authoritarian side of the Republican Party is the dominant side,” he said. “They have the momentum. For now, they have the money.”
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who leads the anti-Trump group known as Defending Democracy Together, said that “what the last two months have shown is if Donald Trump was a cancer on the country and the party, he’s metastasized.”
“I thought we could push past him,” she said. “But now I don’t think that.”
Still, the Republican Party faces tremendous political risks should its leaders continue to embrace Trump and his brand of norm-shattering politics.
Already, scores of Republican-friendly businesses have vowed to stop giving money to Trump’s allies in Congress, cutting off a critical revenue stream just as Republicans hope to reclaim the House and Senate majorities in next year’s midterm elections.
Trump’s critics in both parties are vowing to make sure the business community and voters alike do not forget what the former president and his allies did.
“We will remind voters that Republicans were willing to neglect their oaths of office all out of loyalty to one man, and that one man was more important than their constituents, more important than the Constitution of the United States, more important than the democracy that we have in this great nation,” said Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison.
But Trump himself is not going away. Immediately after his acquittal, he issued a written statement promising to reemerge “soon.”
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Trump said. “In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”
Story by Steve Peoples.