Donald Trump on Saturday was acquitted by the U.S. Senate in his second impeachment trial in 12 months, as his fellow Republicans shielded him from accountability for the deadly assault by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol, a shrine of American democracy.
The Senate vote of 57-43 fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection after a five-day trial in the same building ransacked by his followers on January 6 shortly after they heard him deliver an incendiary speech.
In the vote, seven of the 50 Senate Republicans joined the chamber’s unified Democrats in favouring conviction.
Trump left office on January 20, so impeachment could not be used to remove him from power. But Democrats had hoped to secure a conviction to hold him responsible for a siege that left five people including a police officer dead and to set the stage for a vote to bar him from ever serving in public office again. Given the chance to hold office in the future, they argued, Trump would not hesitate to encourage political violence again.
Republicans also saved Trump in the February 5, 2020 vote in his previous impeachment trial, when only one senator from their ranks - Mitt Romney - voted to convict and remove him from office.
The drama on the Senate floor unfolded against a backdrop of gaping divisions in a pandemic-weary United States along political, racial, socioeconomic and regional lines. The trial provided more partisan warfare even as Democratic President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20 after defeating Trump at the ballot box on Nov. 3, called for healing and unity after his predecessor’s four turbulent years in power and a caustic election campaign.
Trump, 74, continues to hold a grip on his party with a right-wing populist appeal and “America First” message. The wealthy businessman-turned-politician has considered running for president again in 2024.
Trump is only the third president ever to be impeached by the House of Representatives - a step akin to a criminal indictment - as well as the first to be impeached twice and the first to face an impeachment trial after leaving office. But the Senate still has never convicted an impeached president.
Democrats forged ahead with impeachment despite knowing it could overshadow critical early weeks of Biden’s presidency.
The impeachment proceedings also can be viewed in the context of a battle for the future of the Republican Party. Some Republicans - mostly moderates and establishment figures - have voiced alarm at the direction Trump has taken their party.
Detractors have accused Trump - who had never before held public office - of undermining the institutions of democracy, encouraging a cult of personality and pursuing policies built around “white grievance” in a nation with a growing non-white population.