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Fidgeting, gasps, pats on the back: What happened in the Senate chamber as 7 Republicans broke with Trump

Christal Hayes and Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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The Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial Saturday, but seven Republicans stood with Democrats to call him guilty in a historic bipartisan vote that drew startled gasps, party criticism and eventually pats on the back.

By voting with Democrats, the seven Republicans helped execute the most bipartisan vote for convicting a president in American history, though the 57-43 tally wasn't the two-thirds majority needed for conviction.

When the Senate held impeachment trials of former President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999, only Republicans in the opposition party voted to convict, while the votes to acquit were bipartisan. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah made history at Trump's first trial last year when he became the first senator in history to vote to convict a president of his own party.

Such precedent added to the gravity of the decisions from the seven Senate Republicans on Saturday, when they cast their votes in a quiet Senate chamber after days of arguments from Trump's lawyers and House prosecutors.

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Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who had voted in the House in 1998 to impeach Clinton, was perhaps the biggest surprise because he hadn't signaled his intention before becoming the first GOP vote for conviction. Burr came first because senators were called in alphabetical order.

Burr, who isn't seeking reelection in 2022, sat sockless at his mahogany desk with his legs crossed and his head looking down at his lap. He fiddled with his eyeglasses, tapping them on his desk repeatedly.

The former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee had investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, a probe that dogged Trump throughout his term. But Burr had voted to acquit Trump at his first impeachment trial a year ago about his dealings with Ukraine.

When Burr's name was called, he stood at his desk and firmly said, “guilty.”

Senators in the chamber looked around at one another, clearly stunned. Reporters gasped while watching the vote from the balcony gallery above the Senate floor.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., departs Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, after the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial in the Senate. Trump was accused of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the acquittal gives him a historic second victory in the court of impeachment.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., departs Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, after the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial in the Senate. Trump was accused of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the acquittal gives him a historic second victory in the court of impeachment.

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was next, tapping his fingers against his chair during the vote. His state Republican Party had already criticized his vote supporting the constitutionality of the trial and would later censure him for his vote to convict.

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Cassidy looked down at his lap and at times put his head in his hand. He had jotted notes during the five days of oral arguments on a white pad. When his name was called, he too stood at his desk.

“Guilty,” Cassidy said, before walking to the back of the chamber to watch the rest of his colleagues vote.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voting in her third impeachment trial, remained focused and kept her gaze on the clerk reading the names of each of her colleagues. She had earlier voted to acquit Clinton, a president of the opposing party, and to acquit Trump at his first trial.

When her name was called this time, she rose from behind her cluttered mahogany desk, which was covered by a large binder, stacks of papers and a white legal pad she used to take detailed notes throughout the trial.

"Guilty," she said in a stern voice.

Republican US Senator Lisa Murkowski speaks to a reporter as she leaves after the first day of the impeachment trial of former US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill, February 9, 2021, in Washington, DC. - The US Senate voted on February 9, 2021, to proceed with the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, rejecting defense arguments that it was unconstitutional. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0 ORIG FILE ID: AFP_92L8LV.jpg
Republican US Senator Lisa Murkowski speaks to a reporter as she leaves after the first day of the impeachment trial of former US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill, February 9, 2021, in Washington, DC. - The US Senate voted on February 9, 2021, to proceed with the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, rejecting defense arguments that it was unconstitutional. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0 ORIG FILE ID: AFP_92L8LV.jpg

Seated next to her, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, was the next Republican to join them. Murkowski leaned back and forth in her chair. She continued jotting down notes in a small, bound notebook until her name was called. She took off her facemask and rose to cast her guilty vote.

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After settling back in her chair, Murkowski leaned toward Collins and exchanged whispers.

Romney sits in the last row of the Republican side of the chamber, in a corner flanked by some of Trump’s most loyal allies. Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana sits to his right, Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are to his left, and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is seated in front of him.

Romney kept his head down with his hands clasped in his lap. When his name was called, he rose and loudly said, “guilty.” He then made a quick exit from the chamber.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., leaves the chamber as the Senate voted to consider hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., leaves the chamber as the Senate voted to consider hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska refused to vote for Trump in 2020 and condemned his lies that many say led to the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, which Trump was charged with inciting.

After reports the Nebraska Republican Party was considering a censure resolution against Sasse, he released a video earlier this month saying he would always vote his conscience even if that ran against the party stream. "The anger in the state party has never been about me violating principle or abandoning conservative policy," Sasse said in the video.

Moments after Romney's vote, Sasse rose, took off his face mask and joined him. “Guilty,” Sasse said.

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Two desks away from Sasse in the back row, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s eyes widened, appearing shocked. He whispered to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who sits between Portman and Sasse, for several moments.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who like Burr isn't seeking reelection next year, sat motionless at his desk. He peered down at his hands in his lap. The notebook where he jotted down thoughts during the trial was closed on his desk.

As his name was called, Toomey took off his black face mask and cast the final Republican guilty vote.

Afterward, Toomey remained at his desk even as many of his colleagues, including those who sit nearby, quickly left the floor. He fiddled with his phone for several minutes.

Burr and Sasse got pats on the back from several of their Republican colleagues, including from Portman and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber.

"It's an uncomfortable vote and time will tell," Thune told reporters afterward. "But I don't think there was a good outcome there for anybody."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate chamber tense as 7 Republicans broke with Donald Trump at trial