Overnight, it had emerged that a Republican congresswoman from Washington state was prepared to testify about a “chilling” phone call Trump had with a top GOP official, even as rioters swept through the US Capitol on 6 January.
Jaime Herrera Beutler had told constituents, and then the media, that Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy revealed to her he had pleaded with Trump to call off the rioters, only to be told: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Not only was she speaking out, but she was urging other Republicans to do so as well. Suddenly, the Senate voted 55-45 to allow witnesses, and there was heated speculation about deposing Herrera Beutler.
And if they deposed the Republican from Washington’s third congressional district, why not depose Mike Pence, and have him testify as to what was going through his mind on the the afternoon of 6 January, as his Secret Service detail was evacuating him to a safe location in the Capitol, even as Trump tweeted that he had failed to stand up for democracy?
Would enough Republicans decide their lives, and the lives of their Democratic colleagues, had been placed in such peril by Trump and the actions of his supporters, who he had urged to “fight like hell”, that they would from break from him, and vote to convict. And if they voted to convict, might they then also vote to block him from holding office again?
It was not to be. After a break of less than an hour, the hearing reconvened to hear that Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin would read Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record for senators to consider, but that she would not be called to give evidence, and there was no plan to call any other witnesses.
What had happened?
In short, Democrats knew that for all the evidence they had shown suggesting a convincing case that Trump had indeed incited an insurrection, an episode that left five people dead, including a police officer, they just did not have the numbers.
They also knew there was little enthusiasm in the White House for dragging this on for the sake of it. They were also aware of the threats of Republican senators to block all Joe Biden’s agenda if they went ahead and called dozens of witnesses.
Shortly afterwards, a vote was called. An astonishing seven Republicans voted with Democrats, 57-43, to convict Trump, but it was still 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority they required. For the second time in barely 12 months, the former president had been impeached by the House, but then not convicted by the Senate.
“It is a sad commentary on our times that one political party in America is given a free pass to denigrate the rule of law, defame law enforcement, cheer mobs, excuse rioters, and transform justice into a tool of political vengeance, and persecute, blacklist, cancel and suppress all people and viewpoints with whom or which they disagree,” Trump claimed in a statement.
Many of those looking to heap blame turned to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who had let it be known he was voting to acquit Trump. He later spoke from the Senate floor, and delivered a damning condemnation of the former president, accusing him of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”.
“They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth. Because he was angry. He had lost an election. Former President Trump’s actions preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said.
He added: “There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
When Nancy Pelosi then accused of McConnell of “cowardice”, many would have agreed. For four years, the Kentucky senator acted as Trump’s enabler, despite apparently deeply disliking him and his style of politics.
Or was McConnell simply putting party over principle once again?
The Republican knows that while Trump may be a weakened force, he is far from finished. Whether or not he runs again in 2024 remains to be seen.
But McConnell is assessing that Republicans will need the votes of Trump’s supporters, both in that election and in the 2022 midterms. It was another instance of his failure to break free of Trump’s orbit, or at least the allure of Trump’s base.
So, a historic day. Until Saturday, only one politician - Mitt Romney, last year - had voted to convict a leader of their own party in an impeachment case in the Senate. Now there are seven.
Yet for critics and opponents of Trump, a day that was insufficiently historic. Joe Neguse, one of the Democratic “prosecutors”, had urged Republicans there were “moments that transcend party politics and that require us to put country above our party because the consequences of not doing so are just too great”.
Not enough Republicans agreed with him. And Donald Trump has lived to fight another day.
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