What Trump's acquittal means for the future of American politics

14 February 2021

8:35 AM

14 February 2021

8:35 AM

Former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate today, in what has turned out to be the shortest impeachment trial in American history, after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him last month after the riot at the Capitol building. Despite being the first president impeached twice during his time in office – this time charged with inciting insurrection – the Senate once again failed to secure two-thirds majority to convict him.

When Trump was first impeached in 2019, the Senate voted along near-partisan lines – only Utah senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney broke party lines. This time, seven Republicans broke rank to vote with the Democrats for impeachment, including Romney again, Ben Sasse – the classical liberal junior senator from Nebraska – and Susan Collins – the senator from Maine, who fought for her seat in a highly competitive race last November. Still, the majority of Republican Senators rallied to stop the impeachment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

President Joe Biden has been notably quiet about the impeachment proceedings, focused instead on working to get consensus for his Covid-19 stimulus package and delivering on his inauguration pledge to unify the country. In response to the ruling, Trump thanked his lawyers, Republican Senators who voted to acquit, and the millions of people who voted for him last November:

‘This has been yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country. No president has ever gone through anything like it, and it continues because our opponents cannot forget the almost 75 million people, the highest number ever for a sitting president, who voted for us just a few short months ago…Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. 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. There has never been anything like it!’

Had the Senate convicted him, they would have also had the opportunity to bar him from running for office in future. Now, Trump’s claims that his movement has ‘just begun’ could mean a myriad of things, including – in theory – another run for the White House. He has already pledged to ‘(come) back in some form’ though Trump – who has been spending his time in Florida since leaving the White House – has yet to lay out his plans for the future.

Since the riot on Capitol Hill, the battle for the soul of the Republican party has been underway. The results of the November election – which saw the nation reject Trump, but not necessarily Trumpism – left many in the Republican party thinking that the midterm elections in 2022 would be run on a Trump-lite manifesto: similar policy platforms, presented in more palatable ways. But since the riot, the party has been floundering, stuck in a state of crisis. Prominent Republicans like the former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley have drawn a clear line under the Trump presidency, while other Republicans have gone on the defensive, unwilling to acknowledge their role in indulging Trump’s fantasies about overturning the election result.

Today’s result further muddles the prospects for the GOP: now acquitted, Trump is a stronger position to try and keep his hold on the party, or at least act as the ‘king maker’ for future candidates in the mid-terms and 2024 presidential election. But today’s decision does not put last month’s scenes of rioting and violence in the past. If anything, pressure is likely to mount further on members of the party to make clear, and defend, where they stand on the past four years – and how Trump’s term came to an end.

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