By Heather Cox Richardson
Pundits are saying that the Senate will vote to acquit former president Donald Trump at the end of his second impeachment trial, set to start on Tuesday.
I’m not so sure.
After the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the House of Representatives passed an article of impeachment against Trump for “incitement of insurrection.” The article accuses
the former president of engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors “by inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” It charges him with lying about voter fraud, trying to get the Georgia secretary of state to falsify election results, and encouraging his supporters to attack the Capitol to stop the process that would certify Biden’s victory.
The article charges that the former president “has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national security, democracy, and the Constitution… and has acted in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law…. [He] warrants… disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”
The House passed this article of impeachment with 232 representatives voting yes and 197 voting no. Ten Republicans joined 222 Democrats to impeach Trump in his last days in office. The Senate will hold a trial to determine whether to convict the former president of this charge. If all 100 senators are present, the number needed to convict is seventeen. But there is no requirement that all senators be present.
Pundits are basing their belief that senators will vote to acquit on the fact that 45 Republican senators voted against a motion proposed by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), calling for a debate over the constitutionality of trying a former president. Paul insisted that vote was a proxy for conviction, but a vote immediately after that one, on the structure for the trial, drew only 17 no votes from Republicans. Thirty-three voted yes. My guess is that neither vote is a definitive sign of what is to come.
There are a number of things going on.
This trial brings into public view the fight for control of the Republican Party. Business Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have run the Republican Party since the 1980s. They cultivated the populists for their votes, but business Republicans never intended to give them power.
The two wings jockeyed along together because both like tax cuts and originalist judges, who reject the idea of business regulation and government protection of civil rights. But that uneasy alliance is wrenching apart. Trump gave his populist supporters a taste of power, and they do not want to give it up. The Trump wing has become a personality cult, embracing violence and an attack on the rule of law in order to keep the former president in office.
Business Republicans cozied up to the Trumpers because they need the votes Trump turned out and the money he raised. But it is no longer clear that he can keep commanding votes or raising big money.
Since the January 6 coup attempt, social media giants Twitter and Facebook, as well as others, have banned the former president, taking away his ability to marshal his troops. Lawsuits from voting machine companies that Trump surrogates attacked have shut up media personalities, hampering the Trump team’s ability to spread their narrative.
Trump and his inner circle have also lost their access to major publishing venues: the last major publisher willing to buy books from Trump’s people turned away from them after January 6, handing them back to smaller publishers.
At the same time, Trump supporters increasingly look unhinged. Their face is the new Georgia representative who has, in the past, embraced political violence and QAnon. Since January 6, Republican voters have been leaving the party. Their timing is a red flag: voters usually only change parties before an election.
Voters are not the only ones disgusted by the riot. Major Republican donors have announced that they will not donate to anyone who voted to challenge the counting of the electoral votes on January 6 and 7. Others have announced at least a temporary hold on political donations.
So for a Republican senator, what’s the political calculation on impeachment?
The course for Trump Republicans is easy: they will defend their man. Today, in what appeared to be a coordinated publicity maneuver, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tried to argue that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is to blame for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. (Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani blamed “Antifa” and “BLM.”)
But the calculation for the business Republicans is not so clear. They don’t want to alienate either Trump voters or anti-Trump voters, and they need to raise money.
Trump and his supporters have tried to lock up the party apparatus. The former president controls money and email lists, and is trying to put his people into positions of power at the state level. They are publicly challenging the ten Republican representatives who voted to impeach Trump. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) actually traveled to Wyoming to urge voters to turn Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), the third-ranking member of the Republican House leadership, out of office. It is likely the Trump wing will launch primary challengers against anyone who votes to convict the former president.
At the same time, Trump’s support is falling. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released today shows that 56% of Americans believe that Trump should be convicted and barred from ever holding office again. By a 17-point margin, Americans say that the Republican Party has more radical extremists than the Democrats.
There is another problem: it is likely that the more we learn about what happened on January 6, the worse the participants are going to look. And, if indeed the Department of Justice decides to use RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, against those who participated in the insurrection, it might well sweep in Republican lawmakers or operatives who spoke at, raised money for, or planned the January 6 rally. In that case, a vote to acquit the president would tie a senator who is not associated with the rally to those that are.
Republican senators have tried to stay quiet about the upcoming trial. When forced to comment, some leading business Republicans have pushed back against the Trump wing. McConnell has called the right-wing fringe a cancer that must be cut out, and today Cheney—who won Gaetz’s challenge to remove her from leadership by a 2-1 vote– went for Trump himself, saying he “does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.” On “Fox News Sunday,” Cheney told host Chris Wallace that Trump lied when he said the election had been rigged. She warned that Republicans had to face reality or face defeat in the future.
In contrast, Democrats are operating from a position of strength. It seems likely they will use the impeachment trial to explain to the American people what happened on January 6. Using videos and the words of those who were in the Capitol when the mob stormed in, they will paint a picture of an attempted coup, incited by a former President of the United States.