Donald Trump’s highly anticipated acquittal at his US Senate impeachment trial is the least surprising twist in American politics since … well, his acquittal at his first US Senate impeachment trial a year ago.
On that occasion, with Republicans virtually unanimous in his defence, the then president lorded it over Democrats by staging a celebration in the east room of the White House and gloating over a newspaper front page that proclaimed: “Trump acquitted”.
But this time Trump, already stripped of the trappings of power, suffered a somewhat bipartisan defeat in the Senate has been spared the prospect of becoming the first American president in history to be convicted only because a two-thirds majority is required rather than a simple majority.
The final vote tally was 57-43. Seven Republicans turned on Trump: 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 Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
However, Trump and his supporters are likely to claim victory again. The cloud of January gloom that descended on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in sunny Florida after seemingly endless defeats at the ballot box and in courts will have lifted a little.
The historic debate that played out in the Senate last week is also the final proof positive of a claim made by his son, Donald Trump Jr, at the fateful rally before the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January: “This is Donald Trump’s Republican party!”
If the chilling images of havoc that day – with police under attack and Vice-president Mike Pence, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Mitt Romney narrowly escaping with their lives – were not sufficient to wrench the party from Trump’s grasp, then surely nothing is.
Kurt Bardella, a former Republican congressional aide who switched allegiance to the Democrats, commented: “It’s a demonstration that his status as the leader of the Republican party is unchanged, even though the results of the election have shown that his agenda is a losing agenda for the Republican party.”
One explanation is that senators’ actions are ultimately shaped by Republican state parties, which are ever more radically pro-Trump, and by grassroots supporters, who were not necessarily paying much attention to the trial.
On Tuesday afternoon an average of 11 million viewers watched the opening arguments across five networks, according to CNN, rising to 12.4 million on Wednesday – a sliver of the US population. Notably, the pro-Trump Fox News’s ratings plummeted during the trial until it cut away to other subjects.
In short, the evidence that was devastating to Trump’s reputation, and could harm his future political chances, was not necessarily seen by much of his “Make America great again” base.
That is worth bearing in mind when considering whether or not Trump might take advantage of the fact that his ultimate acquittal will clear the way for him to run for president again in 2024.
Some commentators believe the trial hammered a final nail in that possibility. Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, said: “No matter what the verdict of the senators, Trump is going to come out of this disgraced and his political career is over. He’s not going to be able to recover from this trial.”
The Hill website reported that some Senate Republicans, including those intending to vote for acquittal, say the trial has “effectively ended any chance of him becoming the GOP presidential nominee in 2024”. It explained: “The emotional case presented by the House impeachment managers stung – and will likely lessen his influence in the Republican party.”
Moreover, Trump faces business troubles, myriad court cases and time’s arrow: he would be 78 by election day and might find the lure of the golf course irresistible. He could instead play the role of kingmaker, inviting a series of Republican hopefuls to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring.
On the other hand, the former president has made comments in the past suggesting that he might consider another run and the Hollywood drama of “the greatest comeback ever” would surely appeal. An Axios-Ipsos poll last month found that 57% of Republicans said Trump should be the party’s nominee in 2024.
Bardella noted: “There are obviously a lot of legal landmines still out there that he’s going to have to overcome. You can never underestimate the ambition of other people in his own party who certainly are interested in being the next standard bearer of the party.
“I believe that he will project the idea that he intends to run to maintain a certain level of power and position and fundraising, but what someone’s going to do two years from now is impossible to forecast.”
It is certainly a threat that the Democrats take seriously. Their impeachment managers warned this week that, unless the Senate acts now to stop him, Trump could renew his assault on democracy. Lead manager Jamie Raskin said: “If he gets back into office and it happens again, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.”
Indeed, Trump has always thrived on the principle that what does not kill him makes him stronger. The Russia investigation and his first impeachment over coercing Ukraine for political favors were both weaponized by him to convince supporters that he was the victim of a “witch-hunt” by the deep state.
The second impeachment would surely form part of the same narrative. The clues were there in the arguments presented by Trump’s defense lawyers. Michael van der Veen described the trial as “a politically motivated witch-hunt” and an “unconstitutional act of political vengeance”.
In what sounded like a potential passage from Trump’s reelection campaign launch in 2023, van der Veen added: “It is constitutional cancel culture. History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat party to smear, censor and cancel, not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him.”
Whatever Trump’s future plans, critics fear that a precedent has been set. The upshot of the trial – held at the very scene of the siege – is that a president can lie about an election and incite a riotous mob yet still not endure the ultimate sanction available to Congress. That is Trump’s dangerous legacy.
Bardella added: “If you send a signal that someone who vocally led a violent insurrection against American democracy can do so without consequence, you’re only sending the message that he should do this again, that it’s OK: you are condoning that behavior.
“And it’s not just Donald Trump. The people that perpetrated this are extreme and radical and will only see the Republicans like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio as partners in what will be an ongoing effort to continue to destabilise the democratic process.”