In the end, the Senate’s failure to convict Donald Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection last month was hardly a surprise. True, there were a few unexpected twists, like the vote to convict by Republican Senators Richard Burr and Bill Cassidy, neither of whom were on the list of those likely to do so.
But all along, Republicans signalled that they would never convict Trump. Their motives were mixed. Some of it was fear of backlash from the GOP base, reflected in the group who broke away from their party.
Two of the seven Republicans who voted to convict are retiring, three were just re-elected, and only one — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — is facing voters next year. But Murkowski has faced down a threat before, losing the Republican nomination in 2010 to a Tea Party darling and still winning as a write-in candidate.
Give the seven credit for acknowledging that Trump had to be held responsible for his despicable behavior. Their colleagues are split between true believers like Josh Hawley, who would happily destroy the republic if it would further his presidential ambitions, and cowards who didn’t want to get sideways with the ex-President and his followers.
The chief coward has to be Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. McConnell vote against conviction and then proceeded to blast Trump for “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
McConnell hid behind a questionable technicality: the Senate can’t convict an ex-president. Of course, Democrats could have moved ahead with the impeachment trial while Trump was still in office — except McConnell blocked that move.
As with all things McConnell, his decision to vote no and then criticize Trump is all about holding onto power. McConnell had hinted through calculated leaks that he was open to conviction. In reality, he would never vote to convict. For one thing, McConnell wasn’t about to jeopardize his leadership role by bucking the majority of Republican senators. By voting with the majority, he will be able to continue to control the Republican caucus.
At the same time, McConnell is furious with Trump’s role in losing the Republican Senate majority, to say nothing about the physical danger members of Congress faced because of the insurrection. He wanted to have it both ways. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accurately called out McConnell condemnation as an attempt to reassure establishment Republican donors.
But as much as McConnell might try to get past Trump, his gambit is bound to fail. For Trump, failure to convict is a declaration of innocence. The majority of Senate Republicans confirmed that Trump is the head of the Republican party. He is now emboldened.
Worse, Trump’s followers are emboldened.
“I also want to convey my gratitude to the millions of decent, hardworking, law-abiding, God-and-Country loving citizens who have bravely supported these important principles in these very difficult and challenging times,” Trump said in a statement. “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun.
In short, Trump continues to think that the people who stormed the Capitol are still “very special.”
Trump is incapable of learning anything from his mistakes. All he cares about is if he gets away with his bad behavior.
If Senate Republicans think that fiery rhetoric will have any effect on Trump, they have learned nothing. The only way to stop Trump from controlling the party would have been to convict him. But Republicans know that will cause a civil war within the party. People may lose their jobs.
And after all, what matters most to McConnell and his fellow Republicans is holding onto power. Principle never enters into it. The problem is they just handed Trump the power he craves.
They will pay a steep price for that bargain.