WASHINGTON — Most every senator has pledged to listen to the evidence in Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial, but most minds were likely made up before the trial began. Democrats would need a minimum of 17 Republicans to vote with them to convict Trump of incitement of insurrection, and that appears unlikely.
Still, Democrats say they are holding out hope they will win over enough Republicans to convict the former president for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in which five people died. If Trump were convicted, the Senate could take a second vote to ban him from running for office again. A final vote is likely on Saturday.
Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, are expected to vote for Trump’s acquittal.
Here’s a look at the Republicans whom Democrats are eyeing as they make final arguments in the case:
The frequent Trump critics
Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine have been clear that they believe Trump incited the riot. While none of them is a lock to vote for conviction, they have joined with Democrats twice to vote against GOP efforts to dismiss the trial.
Collins said after the siege that Trump does “bear responsibility for working up the crowd and inciting this mob.” Murkowski called on Trump to resign after the attack on the Capitol, telling a local paper three days later that “I want him out. He has caused enough damage.”
Romney tweeted on Jan. 6: “What happened at the U.S. Capitol today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States.” During the trial, the Democrats showed video of Romney narrowly escaping the mob, redirected by a Capitol Police officer as he unknowingly ran toward the violent crowd.
Sasse said that Trump had “lied to” Americans and the “consequences are now found in five dead Americans and a Capitol building that’s in shambles.” In a recent video, he said Republican politics shouldn’t be about the “weird worship of one dude.”
Murkowski, Collins and Sasse voted to acquit Trump during his first impeachment trial, in which Democrats charged that he had abused his power by urging the president of Ukraine to investigate then-White House candidate Joe Biden. Romney was the sole GOP guilty vote, leaving the Democrats far short of conviction.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring in 2022, has also voted twice with Democrats to move forward with the trial. Like Murkowski, he called for Trump’s resignation after the riots, saying that would be the best way to “get this person in the rearview mirror for us.” Toomey had also aggressively pushed back on Trump’s false assertions that he had won Pennsylvania and other states in the election.
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Three other GOP senators have said they will not run again in two years, potentially freeing them up to vote against Trump and anger base voters in the party. They are Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Richard Shelby of Alabama. All three voted to dismiss the trial, but Portman says he still has an open mind about conviction.
Burr said Thursday that he would not comment on the trial at all. Shelby said this past week that the impeachment managers had a “strong point” that Trump could have acted sooner to stop the violence, but maintained that the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is now out of office.
Cassidy as wild card
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who won reelection by a large margin in 2020, voted two weeks ago for a GOP effort to dismiss the trial. But he switched his vote this past week, saying Trump’s lawyers had done a “terrible” job making the case that the trial was unconstitutional.
Cassidy, who has been taking extensive notes throughout the trial, said Friday that the managers had raised some “intriguing questions” during their two days of arguments. He said that he hoped Trump’s lawyers would answer them thoroughly and that he is “trying to approach it objectively.”
During the trial’s question and answer session on Friday afternoon, Cassidy asked Trump’s lawyers about a conversation the then-president had with Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville on Jan. 6 just after Vice President Mike Pence had been evacuated from the Senate. Tuberville says he told Trump that Pence had been whisked away, making clear that Trump likely knew of the danger at that point, even though he tweeted criticism of Pence after that for not trying to overturn the election. Cassidy asked the lawyers if that showed Trump “was tolerant of the intimidation of Vice President Pence?”
Lawyer Michael van der Veen dismissed Tuberville’s account as “hearsay,” an answer that Cassidy later said was not sufficient.
Thune takes heat from Trump
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican leader, dismissed Trump’s attempts to challenge the certification of Biden’s presidential election victory. Thune predicted the effort would “go down like a shot dog” in the Senate.
That comment drew a furious response from Trump, who urged South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to run against Thune in a GOP primary, an idea she immediately rejected.
Still, Thune has voted twice to dismiss the case. He said Friday that he was keeping an open mind and indicated he could be open to a censure resolution if Trump is acquitted.
“I know a couple of my colleagues who’ve seen a couple of resolutions, at least, that I think could attract some support,” Thune said.
Eyes on McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told colleagues Saturday that he will vote to acquit Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, ending suspense over what the chamber’s most influential Republican would decide and all but slamming the door on chances that the former president would be found guilty.
The longest-serving GOP Senate leader in history made his views known in a letter to fellow Republican lawmakers, according to two sources familiar with McConnell’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss his decision.
Word of McConnell’s decision came minutes before the beginning of Saturday’s session of the Senate trial, which is expected to be a final day of proceedings. Trump is charged with inciting the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
McConnell’s views carry sway among GOP senators, and his decision on Trump is likely to influence others weighing their votes. Seventeen Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to convict Trump, a margin that seems all but insurmountable.
Many had expected the Kentucky senator to vote to clear Trump of the charges, based on McConnell’s history as a GOP loyalist who likes to take few major risks. But before Saturday, McConnell had said little in public or private about his mindset, and no one was certain what he would decide.
McConnell jarred the political world just minutes after the Democratic-led House impeached Trump on Jan. 13, writing to his GOP colleagues that he had “not made a final decision” about how he would vote at the Senate trial.
It was an eye-opening departure from his quick opposition when the House impeached Trump in December 2019 for trying to force Ukraine to send the then-president political dirt on campaign rival Joe Biden and other Democrats.
McConnell had also told associates he thought Trump perpetrated impeachable offenses and saw the moment as a chance to distance the GOP from the damage the tumultuous Trump could inflict on it, a Republican strategist told The Associated Press at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
But since this week’s trial began, McConnell has voted with a majority of Republicans against proceeding with the trial at all on the grounds that Trump was no longer president.
McConnell’s decision to acquit Trump leaves the party locked in its struggle to define itself in the post-Trump presidency. Numerous and fiercely loyal pro-Trump Republicans and more traditional Republicans who believe the former president is damaging the party’s national appeal are struggling to decide the GOP’s direction.
A guilty vote by McConnell would have likely done even more to roil GOP waters by signaling an attempt by the party’s most powerful Washington leader to yank the party away from a figure still revered by most of its voters.
“The overwhelming number of Republican voters don’t want Trump convicted, so that means any political leader has to tread carefully,” said John Feehery, a former top congressional GOP aide. While Feehery noted that McConnell was clearly outraged over the attack, he said the senator is “trying to keep his party together.”
Over 36 years in the Senate, the measured McConnell, 79, has earned a reputation for inexpressiveness in the service of caution. The suspense over how he was going to vote underscored how much is at stake for McConnell and his party.
McConnell has spent the trial’s first week in his seat in the Senate chamber, staring straight ahead. A pool report from a reporter watching from the press gallery Friday said, “McConnell was as stoic as ever, looking like a wax statue of himself in Madame Tussauds with his hands clasped in his lap.”
A guilty vote by McConnell would have enraged many of the 74 million voters who backed Trump in November, a record for a GOP presidential candidate. That could expose Republican senators seeking reelection in 2022 to primaries from conservatives seeking revenge, potentially giving the GOP less appealing general election candidates as they try winning Senate control.
McConnell’s decision will no doubt color his legacy. He turns 79 next Saturday and doesn’t face reelection for almost six years. Even critics say McConnell likes to play the long game.
“For McConnell, it’s always strategy, it’s always about how he can live to fight another day,” said Colmon Elridge, chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
McConnell maneuvered through Trump’s four years in office like a captain steering a ship through a rocky strait on stormy seas. Battered at times by vindictive presidential tweets, McConnell made a habit of saying nothing about many of Trump’s outrageous comments. He ended up guiding the Senate to victories such as the 2017 tax cuts and the confirmations of three Supreme Court justices and more than 200 other federal judges.
Their relationship plummeted after Trump’s denial of his Nov. 3 defeat and relentless efforts to reverse the voters’ verdict with his baseless claims that Democrats fraudulently stole the election.
It withered completely last month, after Republicans lost Senate control with two Georgia runoff defeats they blamed on Trump, and the savage attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. The day of the riot, McConnell railed against “thugs, mobs, or threats” and described the attack as “this failed insurrection.”
A week later, the Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump for inciting insurrection. Six days after that, McConnell said, “The mob was fed lies” and he added, “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
— MARY CLARE JALONICK, ALAN FRAM and LISA MASCARO