Republicans Rally Against Impeachment Trial, Signaling Likely Acquittal for Trump

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans rallied on Tuesday against trying former President Donald J. Trump for “incitement of insurrection” at the Capitol, with only five members of his party joining Democrats in a vote to go forward with his impeachment trial.

By a vote of 55-to-45, the Senate narrowly killed a Republican effort to dismiss the proceeding as unconstitutional because Mr. Trump is no longer in office. But the numbers showed that loyal Republicans are again poised to spare him from conviction, this time despite his role in stirring up a mob that violently targeted lawmakers and the vice president on Jan. 6 as Congress met to finalize the vote.

“I think it’s pretty obvious from the vote today that it is extraordinarily unlikely that the president will be convicted,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the five Republicans who voted to proceed to trial. “Just do the math.”

It would take two-thirds of senators — 67 votes — to attain a conviction, meaning 17 Republicans would have to cross party lines to side with Democrats in finding Mr. Trump guilty. If they did, an additional vote to disqualify him from ever holding office again would take a simple majority.

Aside from Ms. Collins, the only Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to reject the constitutional objection and proceed were Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania. All five had previously said they were open to hearing the House’s impeachment case, which was adopted in a bipartisan vote a week after the attack.

With the facts of the case still spilling forth and the meat of the trial delayed for two weeks, senators could still change their views. Several Republicans who voted on Tuesday to uphold the constitutional challenge, which would have effectively killed the trial, rushed afterward to clarify that they remained open-minded about the trial, which next convenes on Feb. 9.

In the weeks since the attack, Mr. Trump has made no apology for his actions, including spreading falsehoods about election fraud and urging his supporters gathered outside the White House on Jan. 6 to march to the Capitol, confront members of Congress formalizing his election loss and “fight like hell.”

But most agreed that whatever window of possibility there had been for bipartisan condemnation of Mr. Trump by lawmakers who were evacuated from the Capitol amid the deadly assault just three weeks ago was closing fast, as Republicans were reminded once again of Mr. Trump’s remarkable hold on their party and the risks of crossing him. The 10 House Republicans who broke with their party to support the impeachment charge are already facing an intense backlash, both at home and in Washington.

It appeared that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, was among those making such a calculation. He had twice signaled in recent days — through advisers and then in a letter to colleagues — that he was open to convicting a former president he privately disdains, and he publicly asserted last week that Mr. Trump had “provoked” the mob.

But if Mr. McConnell was trying to soften the ground for a faction of Republicans to abandon Mr. Trump and jettison him from the party, it had become increasingly clear that no such coalition was emerging.

When his fellow Kentuckian Senator Rand Paul lodged a constitutional objection to the proceeding minutes after the Senate convened as a court of impeachment, Mr. McConnell voted with the vast majority of his conference in favor of the challenge.

It seemed to be a recognition that Republicans were not so keen to move on from Mr. Trump, whether out of fear of his promises of retribution and his overwhelming popularity with the party’s core supporters, or out of a belief that the fight was simply not worth having.

Democrats feared something more conspiratorial, pointing out that it was Mr. McConnell who, as majority leader, refused Democrats’ entreaties to begin the impeachment trial two weeks ago, when Mr. Trump was still president. On Tuesday, the Republican leader turned around and sided with Mr. Paul’s argument that trying a former president was unconstitutional.

Mr. McConnell made no public comment about his views of the vote, nor did he speak up on the matter during a private Republican luncheon beforehand, according to people familiar with the session.

The showdown caught many senators off guard on a day that they expected to be devoted largely to the carefully scripted ceremony and logistics of a trial.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the Senate president pro tempore, was sworn in as the presiding officer and then asked all 100 senators to take an oath to administer “impartial justice” during the trial. Senators were warned by the sergeant-at-arms “on pain of imprisonment” to remain silent.

It was then that Mr. Paul, an outspoken defender of Mr. Trump, lodged his formal objection to the trial.

“Private citizens don’t get impeached. Impeachment is for removal from office, and the accused here has already left office,” Mr. Paul had said a short time earlier, calling the trial “deranged” and vindictive.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, quickly moved to shut down the request.

“The theory that the impeachment of a former official is unconstitutional is flat-out wrong by every frame of analysis,” Mr. Schumer said. “It has been completely debunked by constitutional scholars from all across the political spectrum.”

The Senate has clearly taken that position in the past. In 1876, as the House was preparing to impeach him on corruption charges, William Belknap, Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of war, hurried to the White House, where he tendered his resignation in tears just before Congress could act. The House proceeded anyway, and when the case arrived in the Senate, a majority of the body decided that it retained jurisdiction to hear it, notwithstanding Belknap’s departure from office.

Support for a constitutional argument against holding the trial had been growing in the Senate in recent days, particularly among Republicans who showed little interest in mounting any substantive defense of Mr. Trump’s conduct. But the overwhelming level of Republican support exceeded what almost anyone was expecting.

Mr. Paul declared victory, saying, “Forty-five votes means the impeachment trial is dead on arrival.”

The Trump Impeachment ›

From Riot to Impeachment

The riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, followed a rally at which President Trump made an inflammatory speech to his supporters, questioning the results of the election. Here’s a look at what happened and at the ongoing fallout:

    • As this video shows, poor planning and a restive crowd encouraged by Mr. Trump set the stage for the riot.
    • A two hour period was crucial to turning the rally into the riot.
    • Several Trump administration officials, including cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, announced that they were stepping down as a result of the riot.
    • Federal prosecutors have charged more than 70 people, including some who appeared in viral photos and videos of the riot. Officials expect to eventually charge hundreds of others.
    • The House voted to impeach the president on charges of “inciting an insurrection” that led to the rampage by his supporters.

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