WASHINGTON — Donald Trump was acquitted Saturday of inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol, concluding an impeachment trial that spared him the first conviction of a current or former U.S. president but exposed the fragility of America’s democratic traditions.
Barely a month since the Jan. 6 riot, the Senate convened for a rare weekend session to deliver its verdict, voting while armed National Guard troops continued to stand their posts outside the Capitol.
The quick trial, the nation’s first of a former president, showed in raw and emotional detail how perilously close the invaders had come to destroying the nation’s deep tradition of a peaceful transfer of presidential power after Trump had refused to concede the election.
The mob descended on the Capitol just as Congress was certify Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.
As hundreds stormed the building, some in tactical gear engaging in combat with police, lawmakers fled for their lives. Five people died.
The verdict, on a vote of 57-43, is all but certain to influence not only the former president’s political future but that of the senators sworn to deliver impartial justice as jurors. Seven Republicans joined all Democrats to convict, but it was far from the two-third threshold required.
“Senators, we are in a dialogue with history, a conversation with our past, with a hope for our future,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa.., one of the House prosecutors in closing arguments. “What we do here, what is being asked of each of us here in this moment will be remembered.”
Trump welcomed his second impeachment acquittal and said his movement “has only just begun.” He slammed the trial as “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”
Though he was acquitted of the sole charge of incitement of insurrection, it was easily the largest number of senators to ever vote to find a president of their own party guilty of an impeachment count of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Voting to find Trump guilty were GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Even after voting to acquit, the Republican leader Mitch McConnell condemned the former president as “practically and morally responsible” for the insurrection. McConnell contended Trump could not be convicted because he was gone from the White House.
The trial had been momentarily thrown into confusion when senators Saturday suddenly wanted to consider potential witnesses, particularly concerning Trump’s actions as the mob rioted. Prolonged proceedings could have been especially damaging for Biden’s new presidency, significantly delaying his emerging legislative agenda. Coming amid the searing COVID-19 crisis, the Biden White House is trying to rush pandemic relief through Congress.
Biden has hardly weighed in on the proceedings and was spending the weekend with family at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland.
The nearly weeklong trial has delivered a graphic narrative of the riot and its consequences in ways that senators, most of whom fled for their own safety that day, acknowledge they are still coming to grips with.
House prosecutors have argued that Trump’s was the “inciter in chief” stoking a months-long campaign with an orchestrated pattern of violent rhetoric and false claims they called the “big lie” that unleashed the mob. Five people died, including a rioter who was shot and a police officer.
Trump’s lawyers countered that Trump’s words were not intended to incite the violence and that impeachment is nothing but a “witch hunt” designed to prevent him from serving in office again.
The senators, announcing their votes from their desks in the very chamber the mob had ransacked, were not only jurors but also witnesses. Only by watching the videos — rioters calling out menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the January certification tally — did senators say they began to understand just how perilously close the country came to chaos.
Many senators kept their votes closely held until the final moments Saturday, particularly the Republicans representing states where the former president remains popular. Most of them ultimately voted to acquit, doubting whether Trump was fully responsible or if impeachment is the appropriate response.
The second-ranking Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, acknowledged, “It’s an uncomfortable vote,” adding, “I don’t think there was a good outcome there for anybody.”