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Political experts weigh in on Trump's acquittal at impeachment trial

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Following the Senate vote acquitting former President Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial, CBSN anchor Lana Zak spoke with CBS News Capitol Hill producer Rebecca Kaplan, CBS News election law expert and political contributor David Becker, and political contributor and Democratic strategist Joel Payne about the outcome.

Video Transcript

- --second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump has just wrapped up. The president has been found not guilty. Seven Republicans have crossed party lines. A majority of the chamber did, in fact, find him guilty. However, it requires a 2/3 majority. So for some analysis over what we've heard, including some very stunning remarks coming from Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, I want to talk to our team of experts and reporters who have been following every single moment with us.

Let's go ahead and bring back in Joel Payne, David Becker, and Rebecca Kaplan. Joel is a CBS News political contributor and Democratic strategist. David is a CBS News election law expert and political contributor. And Rebecca is a CBS News Capitol Hill producer. I'm going to start with you, Rebecca. Former President Trump has issued a statement in response to his acquittal. What does he have to say?

REBECCA KAPLAN: Yes. And as a reminder, the president-- the former president-- probably normally would have live tweeted these entire proceedings were his Twitter account not suspended shortly after the January 6 riots. In this statement, he thanks the senators who he says upheld the Constitution in voting to acquit him, and also thanks all of his supporters. And I'll just read one section to you that really echoes a lot of the arguments we heard from his lawyers on the Senate floor.

Quote, "It is a sad commentary on our times that one political party in America is given a free pass to denigrate the rule of law, defame law enforcement, cheer mobs, excuse rioters, and transform justice into a tool of political vengeance." He goes on to say that people have been blacklisted and canceled and says, quote, "I have and always will be a champion for the unwavering rule of law, the heroes of law enforcement, and the right of Americans to peacefully and honorably debate the issues of the day without malice and without hate."

And again, this is a callback to several of the arguments that we heard, really kind of the core of the former president's defense team on the floor, which was this whataboutism, pointing to statements calling for violence by Democrats, or even instances of Democrats using the word "fight." There was, like, a 10 minute video at one point just showing Democrats saying the word "fight" in various contexts, although realistically, most of them were talking about policy.

But this is the argument that also some Republicans pointed to in their decision to acquit the president, which was to say that the other side has been allowed to condone violence. There's been a lot of talk of the protests that followed the death of George Floyd last summer, with Republicans kind of portraying those protests as completely, universally violent, which as we all know from watching, was not true. But that is the foundation of, for many of them, what they saw was the fair way to make their decision today.

- So former President Trump responding to his victory of sorts, though there are plenty of Republicans who would say that this is not a victory for their party. David, minority leader Mitch McConnell, I want to talk to you about those remarkable statements that we heard from him on the Senate floor as soon as the impeachment trial wrapped. He blasted the former president for being, quote, "practically and morally responsible for the deadly assault on the Capitol."

He came after the former president in, really, his harshest words yet. But he voted not guilty. Explain to our viewers what's going on.

DAVID BECKER: Well, I can't speak specifically for what's in Senator McConnell's mind. I mean, he explained that he thought it was unconstitutional, ultimately, to use the impeachment power or the conviction power, the removal and disqualification power, on a former president. But yes, I think if former President Trump wants to view this as an exoneration, as some victory, I think he's going to have to look very, very hard.

It's very clear from looking at Senator McConnell's statements, and also some of the other statements that have come out even from some Republicans who voted not guilty, that they hold him culpable for his conduct. I mean, Senator McConnell referenced provoking the mob with a cascading crescendo of conspiracy theories relating to the election. And I think this is really important that many, even those who voted to acquit, are holding former President Trump responsible for what he said, what he did, how he provoked the mob, and then kind of grasping onto some technicalities about whether or not impeachment was the right forum, whether or not he was actually guilty of a criminal-- in a criminal sense of incitement, and almost suggesting that criminal investigations and civil litigation could and should proceed against the former president.

This is the most bipartisan conviction vote in American history. It's the largest margin to convict since Andrew Johnson. And so in 150 years. And it's remarkable that seven Republicans did vote to convict. And I just also want to note, we went from 55 votes to go forward with the trial to 56 votes to go forward again. And then it ended with 57 votes. So the president's legal team lost Republicans every step of the way every time a motion came up.

- So there are two points that you raised, David, that I want to follow up with you on. First is that point about constitutionality and Republican leader McConnell's argument that they shouldn't be holding an impeachment trial for a leader who has left office. Can you remind our viewers, though, about Mr. McConnell's role in having the impeachment trial take place after President Biden was inaugurated? And then to the other point about still holding Mr. Trump accountable, he said that Mr. Trump is, quote, "still liable for everything he did." Does it sound like he's encouraging another trial, a criminal trial, for the former president?

- Well, that's what it sounded like to me. I mean, I think even the president's own lawyers suggested that criminal and civil trials were the proper forum for this. And of course, we do know there's a criminal investigation going on in Fulton County, Georgia. There is a criminal investigation going on in Manhattan. There might be other investigations and many more civil lawsuits out there, several of which we know of. So the president is not-- the former president is not out of legal jeopardy here, and probably shouldn't be.

With regard to the timing, I think Senator McConnell is kind of trying to shift some blame and use some technicalities here. The Senate was not going to be reconvened after the impeachment vote was held by the House. And so it did not appear as if there was a way for the impeachment managers to have the case heard prior to former President Trump leaving office.

And there's probably a lot of responsibility to go around there. But given the timing, it was only about a week or so before the inauguration of Joe Biden. So it was going to be tight, regardless. I think more importantly, this constitutionality issue, most constitutional scholars believe it is appropriate to impeach and try and possibly convict and remove and disqualify a former federal official. It's been done in the past.

But it certainly gives something to those who wanted to acquit who felt like they might be in political peril if they voted to convict to hold on to. But still remarkable that seven Republicans voted to convict. And even those who voted to acquit, many of their statements are holding former President Trump culpable for his actions and provoking the mob on January 6.

- All right, Joel. So we hear from Republican members, as Dave and I have been discussing, that voted not guilty but still say that they hold President Trump accountable. What do you make of the GOP members that did, in fact, vote guilty in this trial? Any surprises to you? And do you anticipate that they may face repercussions from their party?

JOEL PAYNE: Well, look, certainly those Republicans will have to be accountable to Republican base voters, which it's clear right now is in the camp of Donald Trump and Trumpism. I think the biggest surprise, as the roll was being called, was probably Richard Burr, the retiring Senator from North Carolina who certainly has a profile in the national security space and I think has been seen as a Republican who was a little bit more traditional, non-Trumper profile. I think that was a bit of a surprise.

I think we knew Bill Cassidy, given his vote earlier in the week related to constitutionality, had already moved. And of course, some of the other names like Romney, Murkowski, Collins, we knew that some of those Republicans were already going to be open to some of the arguments of the impeachment managers.

I just want to say one other thing about Mitch McConnell here. I agree with David's line of thinking here. And I just want expand on it a bit. Mitch McConnell had time to bring this to the floor. He could have reconvened the Senate if he wanted to. He did not want to. He was playing political games here. And then he tries now-- understanding that he's on the wrong side of history related to this vote and on the wrong side of a number of members of his own caucus, and frankly, the wrong side of the majority of the country-- he's trying to explain away his vote and his support for the president by saying that he didn't have time.

He had time. Mitch McConnell could have reconvened the Senate had he wanted to. He didn't. It's an intellectually dishonest argument. And it's gobsmacking to hear Mitch McConnell, a mere 10 minutes after abdicating that responsibility to hold President Trump accountable, then to attempt to hold President Trump accountable and essentially retweet the entire argument that Jamie Raskin and the impeachment managers have been making.

Last thing I'll say related to time-- this took five half days. Mitch McConnell could have reconvened the Senate and brought the Senate back to order for a week to do this business. There's other emergency business examples in the past where the Senate has come back and he could have brought the Senate back had he chosen to. If this was the national emergency that Mitch McConnell indicated in his comments today, you would think he would have been provoked to do that. Clearly, the political realities of the Republican Party did not allow for that.

- His place in history, as you mentioned, Joel, echoing, in some ways, the closing arguments of House manager Raskin who said that this isn't about Donald Trump. He said this is about who we are, and to paraphrase Thomas Paine, what type of America we will be. I want to see if we have a soundbite from Joe Neguse's-- Congressman Neguse's closing arguments in which he talked about history. Control room, do you have that for me? Can we play that?

All right. It seems like we're trying to get all that in order. But what he said was he was connecting his family's heritage to the vote to override President Reagan's-- sorry? It sounds like we have it now. Let's go ahead and listen.

JOE NEGUSE: --in 1986-- 1986-- this body considered a bill to override President Reagan's veto of legislation imposing sanctions on South Africa during apartheid. Two senators who sit in this room-- one Democrat and one Republican-- voted to override that veto. That vote was not about gaining political favor. And in fact, it was made despite potentially losing political favor. And I have to imagine that that vote was cast, like the decisions before it, because there are moments that transcend party politics and that require us to put country above our party, because the consequences of not doing so are just too great. Senators, this is one of those moments.

- One of those moments. Two of the senators who had voted during that time to overturn President Reagan's veto against apartheid were in the chamber, as Congressman Neguse said. Rebecca, can you tell us a little bit more about who this argument, we've learned, was really aimed at?

REBECCA KAPLAN: Frankly, this is always a powerful argument to make with senators to kind of point out their responsibility and the responsibility that that chamber holds, especially coming from a House member which, as we all know, senators consider themselves the upper chamber. I mean, it's only 100 people there versus 435 in the House. So any time you point to sort of the historical weight and the power that the Senate has, that's an argument that you're making to tell senators that you don't need to consider necessarily what the executive branch wants you to do. You're an independent branch of government.

And this last-ditch argument to encourage them not to follow former President Trump for political reasons but to remember that they have the power to assert themselves and trying to convince them that they didn't necessarily need to fall behind this constitutionality argument, which frankly, for a lot of senators-- and David talked about this-- they've condemned what the former president did in their statements while still citing the constitutionality question in their decision to acquit him.

And so sort of, in a way, hiding behind that issue of constitutionality allowed them to avoid the ultimate question and rendering that judgment on whether they thought he actually incited violence or simply behaved inappropriately, which many were willing to concede. So a tough day for a lot of senators, and ultimately went the way that it looked like this was going to go from the start.

- Yeah, it ultimately did end up playing out pretty similarly to how we predicted it might play out. But Joel, I want to give you, also, an opportunity to respond to Congressman Neguse's closing statements, because it was a powerful moment. And given that minority leader McConnell was one of those two senators, the sole Republican senator currently seated in the chamber, that voted against President Reagan, it seemed like that argument was really targeted towards him about our understanding of apartheid now looking back in hindsight, and where we are as a country. How might that have affected Leader McConnell?

JOEL PAYNE: Lana, I think while we would hope that those types of appeals would be effective, it's pretty clear that that has no impact on today's Republican Party. And again, I always acknowledge I'm a partisan. So people should take that into account. But I'll just say this, the Republican Party not really being centered and not being more-- being pretty unmoored by anything has really turned into kind of like a national security crisis. There's really nothing to appeal to there.

The central organizing principle of the Republican Party is to hold power. So you can't appeal to shame. You can't appeal to justice or any of these other values and virtues that we hope to espouse upon our public officials. What Congressman Neguse was attempting to do there-- very skillfully, I might add. He had a star turn as a number of members of the impeachment manager's team.

But again, this Republican Party is driven by power. And it's guided by a base that has decided to really just take a step away from any convention and is ungoverned by anything that someone like a Neguse or any of the other folks in that chamber, frankly-- a Mitch McConnell-- you can't appeal to that part of the Republican Party that controls it with the normal conventions that you would hope you can.

And that's a crisis. And beyond what happens today and beyond the outcome of this vote today, that continues to be a real-- like, I'm a Democrat. I need a Republican Party that is full and robust and that is bolted to the ground and that is not controlled and overrun by insurrectionists. That's important. And I think one of the things that's going to come out of today is just a firmer understanding of how much of a crisis that is for our country.

- I appreciate that point, that you're a Democrat and that you need a strong Republican Party, particularly based off of the way that our country works going forward, with Republicans and Democrats sparring and hopefully the best policies and procedures rising to the top. But David, let's talk a little bit about what we were hearing from Joel in terms of the future. And in this case, I don't want to talk to you about the future of the Republican Party. I want to talk to you about the future of impeachment.

In this case, as you mentioned, this was the most bipartisan of any impeachment going all the way back to the very first impeachment trial in our country. But still, even as we heard the Minority Leader say President Trump is absolutely responsible for this deadly assault, that it is inconceivable that this attack on the Capitol would have happened were it not for President Trump. Nonetheless, he was acquitted. Does this mean that impeachment simply fails to work as a lever of a check on our executive powers?

DAVID BECKER: Well, I think we'll have to see. We have to remember, we want impeachment to be rare. We certainly want the cause--

- Of course.

DAVID BECKER: --that might bring about impeachment to be rare. It's unfortunate that we've had to go through two or three impeachment trials in the last 22, 23 years-- two in the last year or so. And the framers in their wisdom decided that it should be difficult. It was one of the reasons I think the president-- the former president's counsel's argument that this was going to lead to a slippery slope of all these impeachments for political reasons was-- really fell flat for, I think, a lot of us was that it's still a very, very significant burden to get over to get to that 2/3 conviction margin. It's never happened with regard to a president, despite four impeachments.

It might have happened with Nixon if we had gotten to that point, because his party basically decided that he was a burden on them. But I don't know what it means for the future of impeachment. I don't think it's a slippery slope. I don't think this is done without cause, without reason, despite the videos that were played by the president's lawyers, the former president's lawyers-- they played these videos that showed Democrats calling for impeachment in 2016, 2017, 2018. That didn't happen.

So we have to be aware of the fact that there was still this very, very significant burden to get over to do impeachment. That's appropriate, probably. It's unfortunate, in this case, I think, when we've-- I think something that representative Raskin said really still resonated. And he said it at the end of his opening statement, which is, if this doesn't rise to the level of conviction, then what does?

A president lying about our Democratic processes for months, whipping his supporters into a frenzy, attacking election officials in the states-- Republicans and Democrats-- threatening them, trying to get Congress to overturn the will of the people during a ceremonial act, a ceremonial joint session of Congress, which is just about counting the ballots, and then whipping up a mob right before that happens and sending them up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol-- if that doesn't warrant conviction, what does?

And that's still going to resonate. And I think we're going to have to think through that quite a bit, because what I think it reflects more is the politics of this, and 43 members of the Republican Party in the Senate worrying that voting their conscience might have led to political consequences that they weren't prepared to pay.

- And I think you're absolutely right, David. I'm going to go ahead and speak on behalf of all Americans and say, we don't want a lot of impeachment trials, that people are, in fact, weary of all of this. And the question is, do we become a country that impeaches more frequently as an act of political theater, or are we a country now that says, this isn't working, and we and we try and think through something else?